Spain 1-1 Italy: A False Nine, A Roaming Libero and Mario Balotelli

A match involving two such high profile teams was always going to stir excitement among those planning to watch it, but the team news managed to send the tactically inclined into an unhealthy state of pre-match adulation. Cesc Fàbregas started in place of Fernando Torres, Fernando Llorente and Alvaro Negredo to play the much written-about ‘false nine’ role, while Italy started with a 3-5-2, with Daniele De Rossi playing as an old-fashioned libero (much to the excitement of the!) and their striking pair were Mario Balotelli and Antonio Cassano seemed nothing but entertaining.


In terms of approach to the game, Spain would, as ever, be playing with a heavy focus on possession, but there were many questions about whether Italy would play a higher-pressing game or revert to the ‘classic Italian’ catenaccio style, and have De Rossi acting as a pure sweeper rather than a libero. The early minutes provided the answer to this, as Italy attempted to force Spain further back with heavy pressing of the ball while Spain attempted to strangle Italy.


Italy’s setup meant that Spain would be limited to relatively few clear cut chances, and Italy would be restricted by Spain’s predictably high rate of possession. David Silva and Mario Balotelli both had efforts from distance in the opening 10 minutes, neither of which troubled the respective goalkeepers. The first real chance for either team fell to David Silva via a Spanish counterattack. A misplaced header close to the halfway line gave the ball straight to his Manchester City teammate. Silva sped forward and cut inside onto his favoured left foot, but under pressure from Giorgio Chiellini, he sent a tame effort towards Gianluigi Buffon. Italy’s best chance of the early part of the first half was a low Pirlo free kick, which was no great worry for Iker Casillas. Around the half hour mark, the game seemed to open up a little more and both teams were making more chances. After a half-cleared corner Andres Iniesta struck a strong volley which, again, was well saved by Buffon. A poor pass from Fàbregas gave way to an Italian counterattack. Cassano’s shot was parried away by Casillas before Balotelli, attempting to pick up the rebound, was penalised for a foul on Gerard Piqué; but replays showed that it should, in fact, have been a penalty to Italy, as the Barcelona centre back caught the eccentric Italian centre forward, but the referee gave the decision Spain’s way – a lucky break for the Spanish.


Claudio Marchisio had a nice volley caught by Casillas and Fàbregas had a good chance blocked by Leonardo Bonucci. The best chance of the half came just before the break and was started by a beautiful heel flick by Balotelli down their left hand side. From there, the play was moved over to the other side and Christian Maggio sent Cassano through. The Milan man sent an excellent cross to Thiago Motta, but Casillas dived low to push the header away. Although the first half had been low on clear opportunities, it had been enthralling.


It was evident to see almost immediately in the second half that Spain had made the conscious decision to be more direct. They had more urgency about their play and looked a far more threatening proposition than they had in the first half. Fàbregas fired a shot from around 25 yards out which prompted another good save by Buffon. Their new style brought the former Arsenal captain more into the game, where he had been something of a peripheral figure before the break. He provided the day’s outstanding performer Iniesta with a very good opportunity to open the scoring, but the Barcelona man dragged his shot just wide. The quality of Spain’s chances had improved, but so had Italy’s; Sergio Ramos was caught out under pressure from Balotelli, who did very well to dispossess the centre half but ruined the chance he had made for himself by taking far, far too long to either shoot or make the pass to Cassano, who was with him in the penalty area. Balotelli had not had a great afternoon and already being on a booking, Cesare Prandelli withdrew him, replacing him with Udinese forward Antonio di Natale.


The change was perfect for Italy. Pirlo broke forward from the Italian half and knocked a fantastic through ball for di Natale, who sprinted between Ramos and Pique and buried the ball into the far corner of the net. Spain reacted extremely well, looking to restore the scoreline instantly. Iniesta had another effort from way outside the area saved with ease by Buffon, but they managed to reap the benefits of the Italians’ first defensive lapse. Fàbregas swept the ball in with a slick left-footed finish, but it was Silva’s assist which was the standout facet of the move. Around 20 yards from goal, he managed to flick the ball with the outside of his boot while it seemed to be between his feet – sublime footwork from the Spaniard.


From here, both sides looked to protect themselves from conceding again but also attacked with more vigour than they both had in the first period, and as a result there were fewer clear chances for both sides, but play moved very swiftly from one end of the field to the other. Spain substituted their goalscorer for a man who was notably not seen many goals over the last two years, Fernando Torres. Along with the Chelsea striker came Sevilla’s Jesus Navas who had replaced David Silva. Jordi Alba fired a volley just wide of the post and just minutes after coming on, Navas sent Torres one-on-one with Buffon; as he advanced towards the ‘keeper, he hesitated and as Buffon made to dive low to pick up the ball, he sprang himself back up and dispossessed Torres with his feet. Buffon appeared to be exploiting Torres’ lack of confidence whenever he got an opening to shoot. The £50,000,000 man was handed another huge opportunity when he managed to exploit a poor piece of control from De Rossi. Buffon was inexplicably on his 18 yard line, as if willing Torres to attempt to chip him, which he did, only for it to end up in the stands. He played as he has most of the season: his movement and positioning meant that he would get chances other forwards would not, but his complete dearth of confidence meant that he would miss them. It seems that, unsurprisingly, his relative flurry of goals in the second half of the season was something of a false dawn for him. But in spite of his misses, Spain did look a better team with an ‘actual 9’ as the focal point for their attacks.


Italy also had two near-misses as the game drew to its end. Substitute Sebastien Giovinco scooped a quite marvellous ball over the defence towards Di Natale but, stretching to reach the ball, he failed to make clean contact with it, knocking it wide with his shin. Italy’s final chance was made and almost superbly scored by Claudio Marchisio; gathering the ball on the halfway line, towards the right-hand side, he sprinted into the open space between Spain’s midfield and their defence, evading two tackles in the process. He then exchanged a wonderful one-two with Motta on the edge of the penalty area, but Casillas made another very good save.


Italy’s defence was their main strength, as they needed it to be. They completed all 15 of the tackles they attempted and made 36 interceptions. They looked threatening on the counter-attack but in terms of judging them through the rest of the tournament, this game was somewhat anomalous; Prandelli has tried to give Italy a more attacking philosophy, but he was forced to abandon it to face the World champions. Their defensive solidity was certainly a plus, but they will need to make sure they remain defensively aware and focussed when they are the side creating more of the attacking play and seeing more of the ball. Spain’s clear improvement with a more direct style and a legitimate centre forward is something Vicente del Bosque will have to take into account, but he will also have to review Torres’ missed opportunities and decide whether Llorente or Negredo may make for better options.


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