Group C Spain v Italy
PGE Arena, Gdansk, Tomorrow, 5.00pm On TV: RTÉ 2, UTV
Referee: Viktor Kassai (Hungary)
Is this a tournament too far for the reigning European and World Champions, Spain? Or are they about to prove that recent Champions League setbacks for the country’s two most prestigious clubs, Barcelona and Real Madrid, mean nothing?
When Spain line out to face Italy in Gdansk tomorrow, the rest of the world will be watching closely. Ireland, of course, will want to have a look at their next two opponents.
The quality of this Spanish side, its ability to wear opponents down with its asphyxiating “tiki-taka” possession game and its supreme sense of self-belief make them worthy tournament favourites.
Germany striker, Miroslav Klose, famously remarked after that World Cup semi-final defeat by Spain in South Africa that his side had become so exhausted from chasing after the Spanish and trying to win back the ball that when they did eventually get possession, they were simply “too tired to do anything with it”.
On top of that, Spain come into this tournament after a flawless qualifying round which saw them win eight out of eight qualifiers. Just for a change, Spain also hold another world record, having assembled a run of 14 consecutive international wins.
Given that their opponents are a relatively new, untried team with the look of a “work in progress” about them, then it is all too easy to predict an emphatic Spanish win. Furthermore, the Italian preparations for these finals, marked by yet another scandal back home, have hardly been silky smooth. Italy, after the misery of first round elimination in South Africa, are headed for further hardship . . . or are they?
Whilst all the logic of this game argues for Spain, there are serious reasons for caution. For a start, footballing logic would say that no team in the world can win three consecutive major tournaments.
For a second, Italy are past masters at turning scandal polemics into tournament winning motivation, witness Paolo Rossi in 1982 and Calciopoli in 2006.
On the team front, Spain may spring a minor surprise by playing Fernando Llorente up front, giving an extra, more direct attacking option for the elaborate build-ups of Andres Iniesta and Xavi.
Italy will be without injured defender Andrea Barzagli but still field the key quartet of Gigi Buffon in goal, Giorgio Chiellini in defence, Andrea Pirlo in midfield and Mario Balotelli in attack. This may well not be all plain sailing for Spain.