European heavyweights play out exciting draw.
It was the best match of the European Championships so far as the last two reigning World Champions squared off in the opener in Group C. The pre-match hype was almost like the weighing-in at a boxing match, and in the red corner Spain were in a buoyant mood as they were coming off a convincing qualifying campaign and impressive warm-ups. In the blue corner the azzurri were not as convincing in internationals in 2012 and were wilting under the match-fixing pressure on the eve of the tournament. Or so the media thought.
As if we needed an indication of the Spanish approach: they started the match with their metronomic passing style. It’s an approach emblematic of the Spanish game and the pedigree of their opposition today made no difference to their philosophy. Busquets to Xavi, to Iniesta, to Silva – the ball seemed to be magnetised to their boots.
Biting Italian marking
Italy came into Euro 2012 conceding only two goals in qualifying – the best defensive record. Their typical solidity at the back would not have been enough against these opponents. They hassled the Spanish for the entire first half to good effect and created the majority of the chances as a result. Cesc Fabregas started as a striker much to the surprise of everyone, and was never off the radar of the blue wall that protected Buffon. They refused to allow Spain to settle for too long in possession.
Gianluigi Buffon had to wait until after the interval before he was really tested; he only had to deal with the wayward efforts of Silva and Iniesta in the first half. The same cannot be said about Iker Casillas however. He had to meet Pirlo’s low free kick and tip it out for a corner, deal with Cassano’s drive and thwart Motta from close range. The first half ended on a high for gli azzurri.
The red fury
The second half saw la furia roja determined to seize control of the midfield and they increased their tempo. Fabregas’ shot tested Buffon when shortly after Iniesta flashed his volley an inch wide of the far post. It was a dizzying opening to the second period.
Balotelli the enigma
It was impossible that this match would not have had a Balotelli subplot. His overall performance was a bit subdued, especially when compared to his strike partner Cassano. However he was booked presumably because of his reputation more than anything else in the first half. When he robbed Ramos of the ball on the right flank however, it seemed that the opener had finally arrived. but the eternity he wanted to set himself was more than enough time for Ramos to recover and nick the ball from behind him – cue the substitution that made the difference.
Antonio Di Natale latched on to a penetrative Pirlo pass and waited just long enough before picking his spot confidently. Then Spain equalised before fans across the world could stop tweeting about Italy’s brilliance and tune back in to the action. In my opinion, the buildup was much more impressive than the finish. David Silva’s delicious flick was worthy of the goal itself. The immediate response put the advantage right back into Spain’s hands as all of a sudden Italy’s midfield looked jaded (chasing the world’s best midfield for 63 minutes can do that).
Del Bosque aware of the sudden advantage, replaced Silva with the secret weapon, or so he thought. Torres still lacking confidence; an affliction not needed in a match of this importance, managed to waste three opportunities to put Spain ahead. When he ended up clean through on goal Buffon was actually able to mop up calmly without actually going to ground. Then with the Italian goalkeeper off his line Torres’ attempt at a lob ended up on top of the net. That profligacy can cost Spain in a tournament such as this.
Fabregas’ scoring record
Cesc Fabregas maintained excellent form in his European Championship opening matches. In the 4-1 rout of Russia in 2008, he scored his first international goal at senior level. This time around he made no mistake after David Silva gave it to him on a silver platter. He still however looks a little uncomfortable playing as a forward though. And the last thing Spain fans want is a repeat of his nightmare finishing at Stamford Bridge in April in the latter stages of this tournament.
Beware of the table-cloths!
Both teams need to be wary of the potential threat that Croatia poses. Their 3-1 demolition of the Irish may not have set the precedent for a long run, but their technical class cannot be overlooked. It’s going to be interesting to see how the makeshift Spanish defence deals with Modric and co. But by the time Spain play the Croats in the final group game they may already have a foot in the last eight. The Italians face the Croatians on Thursday and will fancy their chances after their performance today.
Tomorrow’s fixtures include the cross-channel rivals France taking on England where we’ll see how the three lions will cope without their only world-class forward as well as injuries to key players. While the co-hosts look to get their campaign underway against Sweden.