European elite eye final berth at rivals' expense
© AFP

Spain and Italy have faced each other 27 times in competitive matches, and their head-to-head record could not be tighter, with both sides winning eight of those games and the remaining 11 ending in draws. For good measure, both have scored a total of 30 goals. 

When the two European giants next meet, in Thursday’s FIFA Confederations Cup semi-final at the Castelao, they will no doubt have one previous meeting in mind when they take to the field of play.

That game took place a little under a year ago, on 1 July 2012 to be exact, when reigning world and European champions Spain faced a rejuvenated Italy in the final of UEFA EURO 2012 in Kiev. 

The match ended in an emphatic 4-0 win for the Spanish as they retained their European crown in style, and is an inevitable topic of conversation in the build-up to the Thursday’s semi-final. It is also an indicator, especially as all 14 Spanish players who took part in that final are in the squad Vicente del Bosque’s has taken to Brazil. Nine of the 14 Italian participants in the 2012 final also came, two of whom, Ignazio Abate and Mario Balotelli, picked up untimely injuries against Brazil and are now out of the tournament. 

“People are inevitably going to talk about that game because of the impact it had and still has one year on,” said Italy coach Cesare Prandelli, who restored Azzurra pride at EURO 2012, following their disastrous showing at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. Speaking to FIFA.com, he added: “What is clear, though, is that Spain are the strongest team in the world and that tells you that they’re going to give us a lot of problems.”

Twelve months on
Though last year’s game hangs heavy over Italy’s preparations, they are refusing to look upon the upcoming semi-final as a revenge mission. If nothing else, the emphatic 4-0 defeat spelled out some undeniable home truths that Prandelli has been keen not to ignore.

“We can’t think for a minute that we’re going to beat Spain 5-0. That’s a fact,” he said. “What we have to do is play our game. We need to show courage, even if by doing so we’ll be taking a greater risk. We need to gamble when the situation requires, just as we did in the group phase against Brazil, when we were losing 3-2 and ended up conceding a fourth. That’s the way it is, and if Spain are better than us, then we’ll just say that they’re still the best in the world. End of story.”

Spain’s status as favourites going into the game is based on their recent domination of world and European football as well as the nature of that EURO 2012 win. Yet as Fernando Torres, the scorer of their third goal that night in Kiev, told FIFA.com, that result should not be taken at face value, at least not entirely.

“It was a day when Spain produced one of their best performances of the last few years,” said the Chelsea striker. “There was that game, the final against Germany in 2008, and one or two other matches that stand out. You also have to remember that we drew 1-1 in the group phase.”

Aside from the question of whether Spain will be able to match their sumptuous performance in the Ukrainian capital, there is also the fact that Prandelli’s side have continued to build on the promise they showed at EURO 2012. While his playing resources may be largely unchanged from that night, the Azzurra coach now has a far better understanding of how to deploy them.

As he told FIFA.com, Spain midfielder Andres Iniesta believes the Italians are a more tightly knit unit than they were a year ago: “Quality teams that stick together only improve as time goes by and they have a much clearer idea of how to play.”

He added: “Italy have always been dangerous in any case. They’re a great team with a fantastic keeper and a solid back line that’s just as effective when there’s three of them as it is when there’s four, like in this competition. Then they’ve got (Andrea) Pirlo and (Claudio) Marchisio, who make all the difference for them, just as they do at Juventus. All in all, I don’t think there’s any reason why we should see a repeat of what happened in Kiev that day.”