A lot has changed for Spain since they trounced Italy in the European Championship final in Kiev four years ago.
While the Italians remain the same hard-working team with solid defence and efficient attack, Spain are no longer the dominant force they once were, having lost some key players from their most successful generation and coming off an embarrassing elimination in the group stage of the 2014 World Cup.
For the first time in quite a while, Spain won’t be the obvious favourites when they plays their old rival tomorrow at Stade de France in one of the most anticipated matches of the round of 16.
“Spain have been our nemesis since 2008, which is when the period of their golden era started,” said Italy defender Giorgio Chiellini, who was in the team that lost to the Spaniards in a penalty shoot-out in the Euro 2008 quarter-finals.
“I like the word ‘revenge,’ but more than the word, we need to put it into practice,” he added.
The last two times La Roja defeated the Italians in the Euros, they had a squad that included the likes of Xavi Hernandez, Xabi Alonso and an in-form Fernando Torres. Now their revamped team relies mostly on Andres Iniesta, who is one of five players from this year’s squad who played in both matches, along with Iker Casillas, Sergio Ramos, David Silva and Cesc Fabregas.
Gerard Pique, Jordi Alba, Sergio Busquets, Juanfran Torres and Pedro Rodriguez were in the team that reached the 2012 final, when Spain easily defeated Italy 4-0 for their third consecutive major title following triumphs at Euro 2008 and the 2010 World Cup.
“We didn’t expect to meet Spain, but we knew we would have a very difficult last-16 tie whatever happened,” Chiellini said. “We know what to expect and we’ve got to be prepared.”
Italy have four players left from 2008 – Chiellini, Gianluigi Buffon, Andrea Barzagli and Daniele De Rossi. They also were in the team that played in the final four years ago, along with Leonardo Bonucci, Thiago Motta, Antonio Di Natale and Federico Balzaretti.
Italy, who also lost to Spain in a penalty shoot-out in the semi-finals of the 2013 Confederations Cup, arrived in France written off by critics back home but got off to a good start by beating Belgium 2-0 and Sweden 1-0, quickly establishing themselves as one of the tournament favourites. They lost to Republic of Ireland 1-0 in the final group game but they had already secured first place and rested many regular starters.
“Italy are very good on defence but it doesn’t mean that they play defensively,” Spain coach Vicente Del Bosque said. “They have had changes in midfield and they seem a more objective team than they were in 2012. I don’t see them as a defensive team even though that’s how they are tagged.”
Spain also lost their final group game, 2-1 to Croatia, to drop to second place and set up the match against Italy when a draw would have seen them win the group and face Portugal in the last 16. They had earlier beaten the Czech Republic 1-0 and Turkey 3-0.
“We weren’t as good as people talked about before [the loss to Croatia] and we are not as bad now,” Spain striker Manuel “Nolito” Agudo said. “We have a good team. We don’t have to fear any team.”