Some, like Matteo Darmian, remember watching it on television. Others had to live it. The worst defeat in European Championship Final history. Italy, so good to get there, had little left against an utterly devastating Spain. Factor in Italy going down to 10 because of injury and the 4-0 score was almost inevitable.
Gianluigi Buffon was there that day. Giorgio Chiellini too. Buffon had to pick the ball out of the net four times, while Chiellini hobbled off after only 20 minutes. It was yet another disappointment handed out by the Spanish – four years after Italy had lost on penalties – and wouldn’t be the last. Buffon and Chiellini played in all three defeats. They had felt the heartache. The defender admitted Spain had become Italy’s bogey team, after the ledger for so long was blue. Yesterday, they exacted a piece of revenge.
“After many years of defeats to Spain, we made up for it. OK, it was only a Round of 16 tie, but it’s better than nothing!” Buffon howled in excitement, as his team had just broken the curse. Both he and Chiellini were pivotal.
It was the Juventus defender who opened the scoring. Following a thoroughly impressive opening half-hour, Italy got their reward. Chiellini followed up as Eder’s free kick was only partially saved by David de Gea. He shinned it in. No matter, Italy were ahead. It was their just desserts, the Spanish unable to play with the sort of fluency associated with the team. Chiellini – and his defensive cohorts Andrea Barzagli and Leonardo Bonucci – played a big role in that too. They kept Spain’s front three occupied. The rest stifled their central creativity. But Italy were also decisively effective in possession and gave the Spanish defenders constant headaches.
It meant Buffon had a relatively quiet first half. But when called upon after the interval the captain stood firm. Spain gradually enjoyed greater territorial dominance. Chiellini and co. did well in stopping the majority. They were committed, strong and smart.
When Spain did break through, Buffon was the final brick in the wall. He saved from Alvaro Morata and Andres Iniesta. Then in the dying embers the captain came up with a big save from Gerard Pique. It proved crucial, as Italy sealed victory through Graziano Pelle in injury time.
It was a triumph for the collective. This united Azzurri now meets Germany, but will be undaunted as they were here. Thanks in part to two veterans of years of pain from Spain, Italy have shaken the Spanish monkey off their back.