It used to be that Italy was Spain’s bogey team. The Italians were the ultimate tournament team, getting it done when it mattered most. Spain could not. Meetings between the two went only one way. That has now been reversed.
Giorgio Chiellini admitted as much on Friday when he called the reigning champions Italy’s bogey team. Since getting over their Italian complex in the Quarter-final shootout success at Euro 2008 the Spanish have had the wood over Italy. The sides drew 1-1 in the Euro 2012 group stage, before La Furia Roja smashed the Azzurri 4-0 in the Final. Spain edged past Cesare Prandelli’s team a year later, this time on penalties in the Confederations Cup.
Still, Gianluigi Buffon thinks they have been the only side to give dominant Spain a run for their money: “I am convinced the only side that truly made them suffer in that time was Italy.”
Now Azzurri fans are wondering if in 2016 they can end the Spanish hoodoo. It wasn’t the draw either side wanted. Vicente del Bosque knows Spain have to get past what has been a rock-solid defence. Meanwhile, Italy could hardly believe their luck. Topping a group at a major tournament for the first time in 16 years was rewarded with a meeting against a rejuvenated Spain.
There’s an intriguing subplot too. Alvaro Morata has recently rejoined Real Madrid from Juventus. His former teammates will be the wall hoping to suppress a red tide. There have been complimentary words in the build-up and even friendly warnings. “I did speak to my ex-Juventus teammates and they suggested I wear a helmet if I play!”
Spanish legend Xavi admitted they can struggle against a back three. But Antonio Conte knows it’s not about stopping one player or about three of his. Italy must do what they did in the opening two matches. They went in against Belgium as underdogs but pleasantly surprised with and without the ball. They will need to defend with heart and smarts, but cannot cede total control to Spain. Doing that only invites pressure.
The boss is without the injured Antonio Candreva, who has enjoyed a good tournament to date. One of Italy’s creative outlets, it puts pressure on expected replacement Alessandro Florenzi to do the same. And on the attack, who will be important in possession and in becoming the first line of defence.
Conte says he and his team are not ready to go home. But to end the hoodoo they must be at their absolute best.