From Italy, this was magnificent, a display of intelligence and swagger to eclipse anything seen at this tournament so far. The 2-0 victory over two-time reigning European champion Spain in the Euro 2016 round of 16 was revenge for the final four years ago, for this was a victory every bit as comprehensive as Spain’s 4-0 win in Kyiv. For Spain, meanwhile, there was confirmation that the World Cup was not a one off. The magic has gone. This is a good side, but no longer a great one.
In the final minutes as Italy tired and Spain searched for an equalizer, there were flickers of what it used to be, but they were ghosts of a greater past. Spain had seven veterans from the 2012 final, Italy five, and, while that may not seem like much, Italy looked by far the sharper, fresher team. From Antonio Conte’s point of view, the only frustration was that it took so long for the second goal to arrive–that and a late yellow card for Thiago Motta that will keep him out of the quarterfinal against Germany. There could have been so many more goals, and Italy could have been spared a slightly nervous final 20 minutes.
Perhaps as well, from an aesthetic point of view, it might have been more fitting if the key goal had been from one of Italy’s rapid breaks or its sweeping passing moves. As it was, the opener, 12 minutes before halftime, was forced in from close range by Giorgio Chiellini following a free kick. Graziano Pelle, who had an excellent game, smashed in a second on an injury-time volley.
“When it comes to philosophy, character and competitiveness, I think you are the most uncomfortable rival there is for Spain,” Spain manager Vicente Del Bosque said prior to the match.
That was proved true in spades. For the first hour of the game, Italy was rampant, seemingly stronger and quicker than Spain, Conte’s tactical approach creating almost complete domination. Spain kept being drawn into blind alleys while almost every Italy attack coursed with menace. It always had an extra man, always had space, the benefit of Conte’s intense tactical drilling, his endless repetitions, his desire to cut down the number of options a player to speed up the decision-making process clear.
Xavi had pointed out in the build-up how hard Spain finds it to play against 3-5-2, highlighting the defeats to the Netherlands and Chile at the last World Cup.
“When Italy need to come out with the ball, having three at the back and two wide players means they have five possible people to carry it out–which makes it difficult for Spain to press as they would like,” he said.
Dealing with two forwards makes matters even more difficult because it occupies both center backs. Xavi had worried about a fullback having to push to deal with the more attacking wingback, but Conte deployed an additional complication by playing Emanuele Giaccherini so high that he was almost a third forward.
But it wasn’t just that: Italy just looked more motivated, Spain very staid and static. Sergio Busquets, usually the metronome at the back of midfield for Spain, couldn’t get a look-in, so well-targeted was Italy's pressing. At halftime, Italy had completed more passes than Spain; for Spain to trail on that statistic is unheard of in recent times in major championships.
Again and again Italy overloaded in the first half, with David De Gea having to make a fine save from a Graziano Pelle header and then pushing Giaccherini’s overhead kick against the post, although the Turkish referee Cuneyt Cakir had penalized the Italian for high feet. Marco Parolo put a header wide after a superb flowing move that began with a Leonardo Bonnucci breakaway and Sergio Ramos almost turned a Mattia Di Sciglio cross into his own net.
A goal was coming and it arrived after 33 minutes after Ramos had tripped Pelle as he tried to turn. Eder’s free kick was powerfully struck, and, although De Gea saved, Giaccherini nipped in to push the ball on for Chiellini to ram home.
But for De Gea, Italy would have had the game comfortably won within an hour. He made a full-length save diving up and to his left just before halftime. Giaccherini would have added a second from another incisive raid that had begun with Daniele De Rossi nutmegging Andres Iniesta, and then early in the second half De Gea denied Eder in a one-on-one as he ran on to a smart Pelle flick.
Italy, perhaps inevitably, grew weary. Spain began to create chances. Iniesta and Gerard Pique forced Buffon into saves in quick succession, then, in the final minute, the 38-year-old made a brilliant low save to keep out Pique's volley as Andrea Barzagli inadvertently flicked on a De Gea clearance. That was Spain, sticking a center back up front to chase long humps from the keeper.
There was never that sense of inevitability, the attritional passing, the infliction of death by neat triangles that characterized Spain at its best. There was, in short, no Xavi. What there was, was a lot of petty aggravation that Cakir struggled to keep under control–an indication of how rattled Spain was.
Spain has slipped back, now just another side. Italy, for all the supposed ordinariness of its players, may be becoming something very special.