Perhaps Spain’s reign really is over. Their time as European champions is most certainly terminated after this deserved defeat to classy Italy, who now face another heavyweight in Germany in the last eight.
But it truly could be the end of an era where Spain have re-shaped football’s landscape. Manager Vincent Del Bosque did not resign last night, as some expected, but he sounded far from certain he would stay in charge. He intends to speak first with Angel Maria Villar, the Spanish football federation president.
“It has been a golden era of Spanish football,” said Del Bosque. “And it starts again in September when we start World Cup qualifying.” What Spain might not want to dwell on is that they play Italy again in the second match of that next campaign.
Those armed with only the merest details of last night’s fascinating duel between two of European’s mightiest international sides might suggest this was same old, ruthless Italy.
But, in actual fact, they were guilty of profligacy. It was almost an exact replication of their Group E victory over Belgium in terms of scoreline. But their dominance was more marked here in terms of chances.
That night in Lyon they scored in the 32nd and 90th minute, with Graziano Pelle sealing the victory then – as here – with a volley.
Giorgio Chiellini’s opener last night came in the 35th minute. But Italy should have won more handsomely. That they did not was down to David de Gea, who recovered his poise after criticism following Spain’s defeat to Croatia in their last group game. Two defeats in four matches was not what was expected from a team aiming to defend their title.
So maybe this is the time to start filing those obituaries recording the passing of tiki-taka. After all, this is the second major finals where Spain have exited notably early.
They have survived longer than they did two years ago in Brazil, when they went of the World Cup at the group stage. But being eliminated at the first knockout stage of Euro 2016 means it is beginning look like a trend of failure rather than one-off disappointments.
They have now been dethroned in successive tournaments. They do, of course, leave a distinguished tread. But being so weakly stripped of another title does not suggest the emergence of a new Spain. Rather this felt like a defenestration.
Wearing those wretched white tops in which they rarely seem to win significant games, Spain were still applauded off by their fans. Andres Iniesta swapped shirts with Gianluigi Buffon, two old masters.
But although Iniesta never stopped probing, never stopped trying to re-connect Spain to their old selves, it was the Italian great who starred. His stunning save near the end from Gerard Pique kept Italy ahead.
The fact they needed such brilliance to keep them in front was down to the equally impressive goalkeeper at the other end from De Gea. Italy should have been more than one goal up at half-time, when they led through Chiellini’s close-range effort.
They lived more dangerously in the second half, substitute Aritz Aduriz whipping a shot just wide of a post. Buffon also saved an Iniesta volley but his tip wide from Pique after 86 minutes was a defining moment.
The wet conditions early on proved troublesome for several outfield players, but not De Gea. The goalkeeper kept his side in the game in the initial stages with two remarkably agile stops from Pelle’s header and Emmanuel Giaccherini’s overhead kick.
The replays were played on the big screens at either end of the stadium, so De Gea could admire his own stops. The crowd did too – or at least the Spanish fans did.
Even those Italians in the crowd frustrated by his brilliance could do little more than savour the sight of such fine goalkeeping as his saves were replayed again and again.
Because of the high standards he continues to set De Gea will feel he should have dealt with Eder’s free-kick, from which Italy went ahead.
But then the keeper could also point to the reckless manner in which the foul was conceded. Sergio Ramos’ irresponsible defending jarred with the skipper’s armband he was wearing. A clumsy challenge from behind on Pelle provided Italy with the chance.
De Gea blocked Eder’s free-kick. But the ball squirmed away again. In trying to retrieve the situation, De Gea might have given away a penalty as he lunged foot-first at Emmanuele Giaccherini. But Chiellini’s stabbed finish put the ball in the net at any rate.
It felt like it. But not because Italy, these masters at defending such a slender advantage, looked to sit in. Instead they flooded forward from midfield, where they outnumbered Spain. It seemed like they would add one, maybe two goals before the interval.
Even after the break, when Spain managed to dominate possession as we expect them to do, Italy created chances, specifically when a neat back-heel from Pelle let Eder in. De Gea, of course, blocked.
But he could do little about Pelle’s emphatic volley in the 90th minute after a slightly deflected cross from substitute Matteo Darmian.
ITALY: Buffon, Barzagli, Bonucci, Chiellini, Florenzi (Darmian 84), Parolo, De Rossi (Thiago Motta 53), Giaccherini, De Sciglio,Pelle, Eder (Insigne 82). Subs Not Used: Sirigu,Ogbonna,Candreva,Zaza,Immobile,Sturaro,
SPAIN: De Gea, Juanfran, Pique, Sergio Ramos, Jordi Alba, Fabregas, Busquets, Iniesta, Silva, Morata (Lucas 70), Nolito (Aduriz 46), Aduriz (Pedro 81). Subs Not Used: Casillas, Azpilicueta, Bartra, Koke, Bellerin, Thiago, San Jose, Bruno, Sergio Rico.