Italy knock Spain out of their rhythm


GROUP B SPAIN 1 ITALY 1:IN THE end this may have been the worst possible result for Ireland.

Following yesterday evening’s 1-1 draw between Spain and Italy in Gdansk, Ireland’s next two opponents are both guaranteed to need all the points they can get when they meet Ireland.

Perhaps more worrying than the result, however, was the clear indication that the two strongest sides, at least on paper, in this group are already beginning to fire on all cylinders. At the end of a game of huge quality which both sides might have won, it was the Italians who were understandably happier with the result.

After all, they had just stopped the reigning European and World Champions, giving them quite a fright into the bargain. Such had been the Italian quality that, for once, the Spanish completely failed to get into that infamous, hypnotic tiki-taka rhythm with which they so often wear out opponents.

All the decisive action came in a three minute period on the hour when Italy struck first blood through Antonio Di Natale, only to be hauled back by a Cesc Fabregas goal for Spain. We will never know but one suspects that had not Spain produced that almost instant equaliser, then they were never going to get back into this one.

However, with that equaliser under their belts, the Spanish finally started to play like the side that has dominated world football for the last four years, with substitute Fernando Torres twice going close to landing the killer punch in the last 15 minutes.

Italy, too, had chances to win the game in that same hectic final period, with first Di Natale and then midfielder Claudio Marchisio going close after especially well worked build-ups.

Add to that the fact that both Antonio Cassano and Motta had good first half chances, whilst Manchester City’s wayward talent Mario Balotelli inexplicably delayed when sent clear in the 53rd minute and you could conclude that Italy were full value for their draw.

From the team sheets, it had been clear that this was destined to be as much a mind game as a football match.

Having spent the last two years trying to convince us that his Italy would be much more offence minded than previous Italian teams, coach Cesare Prandelli appeared to revert to national stereotype when he named a three man defence behind a five-man midfield that contained a full back in Maggio and a holding mdifielder in Motta.

Not only that but Prandelli appeared to take a series of gambles, giving a first cap to Juventus wing half Emanuele Giaccherini, playing the AS Roma midfielder in the centre of defence and relying on the highly inflammable attack force of Manchester City’s Balotelli, partnered by AC Milan’s Cassano.

Prandelli’s opposite number, Vicente Del Bosque, had prepared a few surprises of his own. For the last week, the Spanish media have speculated themselves sick, arguing whether Torres or Alvaro Negredo or Fernando Llorente or two of the above three would line out in central attack.

In the end Del Bosque left all three on the bench, fielding an essentially toothless attacking wonder in which the front line comprised Andres Iniesta, Fabregas and David Silva. Not even on a foggy day do any of the last three named pass for strikers.

In the end, both men proved their own points. Giaccherini did a job on the left flank, De Rossi was arguably Italy’s man of the match whilst the reshaped Italian formation proved to be much offensive on the pitch than on paper. Like when Del Bosque finally brought on Torres, as a 74th minute substitute for Fabregas, the Chelsea man proved devastating twice coming close to winning the game.

Afterwards Del Bosque argued that Torres had proved so dangerous, precisely because he had been brought on late at a moment in the game when the Italian defence was clearly stretched. Played from the start, he would not have been nearly so effective, claimed Del Bosque.

In the end, too, both sides live to fight another day.

All the indications are that they will both make Ireland suffer.