Spain vs. Italy
It had been well documented in the pre-match build up that Spain had failed to defeat Italy in a major tournament since the 1920 Olympics. Aragones’ side had defeated the Italians in a friendly in the build up to this tournament, but they must do it when it counts as Aragones is only one win away from being statistically the most successful Spanish manager in their history, with the win over Greece, his ninth in a row, a run not matched by the national side since 1927. The manager has been in the news recently for dismissing the absence of Gattuso, getting into an alleged row with Ramos for his off-the-pitch life style, and even getting riled up by a Spanish radio station, which was acting as an Italian one, causing the controversial coach to declare his side would win 4-0.
The Italians always come into form in the latter stages of the tournament, but the blow of Pirlo must have affected their preparation, allowing the promising Aquilani to come in. Aragones, 70 next month, played the side that started against Russia and Sweden. Iniesta dribbled with fine balance and drew in defenders as he reached the corner flag on the left flank, before crossing. The Italians cleared easily and broke with Grosso down their left, but David Villa made up the yards to slide in and win the ball. Toni had a huge physical and aerial advantage against Puyol and Marchena, winning a free-kick, which he failed to connect with as Casillas gathered. ‘La Furia Roja’ searched for angles for the telling ball as Silva played a one-two down the inside-left channel and his deflected shot looped up for Buffon to catch.
The Italians appeared to defend deep and deny Spain their greatest strength, pace in behind. Thus Xavi and his fellow midfielders had plenty of possession but no direction in their play as they patiently waited for any opening. Donadoni’s side soaked up any pressure and looked to break using the volatile Cassano and Perrotta as outlets to supporting Toni. Torres found space on the right flank but Ambrosini robbed him off the ball with a fine tackle. The Milan midfielder then appeared to catch Villa from behind inside the box, as Lyon’s Grosso cleared. Perrotta, who thrives off Totti’s supply for Roma, made a clever run unnoticed to meet Ambrosini’s cross but his effort was tame as Casillas grabbed his header.
Ramos, criticised for his positioning in conjunction with his centre-backs, and his poor judgement as regards when to bomb forward was caught on the ball as he tried to drive forward by Ambrosini, who swiftly crossed for Toni, but the effort was out of the Bayern man’s reach. Villa was then fouled at the other end and took the resulting free-kick, shooting low under the wall for Buffon to clutch gratefully, having seen it late. Valencia’s Silva found himself popping up on the right, before he cut in and shot; Buffon smothered his effort comfortably. His fellow wide midfielder Iniesta then blazed a shot over as the game threatened to increase its pace. It was likely to be more tactical than the three previous quarter finals.
As the first half came to a close, there were a number of good chances as Cassano created space on the wing and crossed accurately to Toni, whose header was blocked by Marchena. Soon after, Torres broke down the opposite end and cut in, fooling Zambrotta with a sharp turn but the Liverpool hitman’s shot was blocked. The rebound fell to Silva, who shifted inside and shot just past Buffon’s right hand post. The clever Spaniard was reminiscent of Rosicky, when fit (if you can remember that far back) when he cut inside and shaped to shoot. While Spain struggled against Sweden, Italy were even more of a challenge. Cassano and Aquilani tucked in with the holding central midfield duo of Ambrosini and De Rossi, to add numbers in their defensive effort.
Panucci’s clearance fell to Silva at the beginning of the second half, who turned but was brilliantly blocked by the imposing Chiellini of Juventus. Torres then chased the ball down the left flank and competed with Panucci for it. He shrugged off the Roma man and turned inside, but his attempt to cross for Villa, free at the far post, was blocked by the first man. As Spain pressed, a Xavi corner was played back to Marchena, who blazed over as he attempted to imitate Denis Kolodin’s long range efforts against Holland. Both sides made changes as Camoranesi came on for Italy and Fabregas and Cazorla replaced Barcelona duo Iniesta and Xavi. De Rossi’s lofted ball into the box created panic as Casillas raced off his line to challenge Toni, who sparked a scramble in the box with his persistence, ending in Juventus winger Camoranesi shooting, with Casillas making a vital block on the line with his feet.
More space was apparent in the game as John Motson showed his age in frequently referring to Marcos Senna as Silva, a mistake non existent in the first half. This adds to the growing belief that Jonathon Pearce should replace him as the main commentator. Villa then took another free-kick that clipped the wall and landed on the roof of the net. Italy were beginning to create more chances as Zambrotta crossed for Toni, who beat two men but headed over. Fabregas began to influence the game positively, playing earlier passes, with one lofted pass out to Torres, who controlled well and forced a corner, and upping the tempo of Spain’s game. Senna then took over free-kick duties, temporarily at least, and his effort was punched away by Buffon, who was behind the goal-line. The Brazilian-born defensive midfielder had another strike, which squeezed under Buffon and touched the post, as the captain made an uncharacteristic error.
At the other end, substitute Di Natale, of Udinese, crossed to the back post, where Grosso was running in but Toni, unaware of the full-back’s run attempted an overhead kick and took away the chance for ei ther to shoot. Aragones brought off Torres, who couldn’t reproduce his Liverpool form against the World Cup winners, for Dani Guiza, the 27 goal Mallorca striker. The big target man appeared to handle the ball as he controlled a cross from Villa, while his effort was blocked by the alert Buffon, although it didn’t matter as he was penalised. In the final minutes of injury time, a ball from the right flank by the brilliant Fabregas went over the Italian defence as Villa looked to pounce but his control let him down. Once more extra time beckoned.
Camoranesi made a fine dribble and attempted to play in Di Natale but his pass was blocked enabling Spain to start a counter-attack, as Villa crossed for Guiza to head back to Fabregas, whose first time effort was saved, as he popped up in the forward positions he frequently adopts for Arsenal. David Silva had a better attempt as he fired just wide from the rebound. Italy attacked as Marchena just knocked the ball away from Toni’s path, while Casillas tipped over Di Natale’s header for a corner. Luca Toni headed over at the near post with a clever attempt. David Villa slipped in the box but had the composure to back-heel the ball into Fabregas’ path, whilst still on the turf but Zambrotta eased the Arsenal maestro off the ball. The playmaker was then found offside as he continued to support the strikers, something Xavi failed to do, but his eventual meaningless effort was slapped aside by Buffon, who simply stuck out an arm, showed a lack of composure in front of goal on Cesc’s part.
Guiza was played down the right flank by a simple ball from the back, but the Mallorca striker dragged his shot wide, as he failed to look up with Villa supporting. In the second half of extra time, Silva played in Villa, whose first touch was poor, but his pace allowed him to atone for his original error and he shot at goal, forcing a corner as Buffon raced off his line. In the final minutes of extra-time the game became very stretched with Ramos having to play inside as Toni began to favour the space between the Real man and Puyol. The long haired full-back was aerially combative and sharp in the key moments. Cazorla of Villarreal broke down the left flank in the final minutes and his cross-shot went wide as Villa tried to connect, causing it to go to penalties. As the BBC came up with a wonderful statistic that Spain had lost three penalty shoot-outs on the 22nd of June (in 1986 against Belgium, 1996 vs. England, and in 2002 vs. South Korea). Now Spain came up against the most impressive keeper in Euro 2008.
Villa was the first to take the long walk to the spot and scored confidently, followed by Grosso, who curled it past Casillas’ right, the same corner Villa went for, as did Santi Cazorla. De Rossi, who scored in the World Cup final in Berlin, had his shot palmed away. Senna fired centrally, while Camoranesi confidently hit the ball into the top right-hand corner. Guiza, who replaced Torres, had his shot saved by Buffon. Di Natale couldn’t capitalise as Casillas guessed correctly once more. And it was up to Arsenal’s Cesc Fabregas to take the deciding kick. He sent the brilliant Buffon the wrong way confidently. I personally didn’t really see the playmaker as a penalty taker, but he sent the Spanish into the semi-finals. A re-match with Russia beckons as all the history and all trivia were proved, well, trivial.
Cesc deserved the glory with his contribution on the game, perhaps winning him a place against a much improved Russia, in a game which should provide an equal, but more balanced dose of entertainment to the viewers. It is the semi-finals and the finals which this tournament will be remembered on. Let us hope they are memorable indeed.
Spain 0 – 0 Italy FT (a.e.t) ( Spain won 4-2 on penalties)