No-one would doubt Spain’s superiority at the moment - they won all their Confederations Cup group matches, scoring 15 goals and conceding only one.
They won their matches with absolute dominance as well, not giving their opponent many chances to hold the ball, let along scoring.
On the contrary, Italy had scored eight and conceded eight. Their defence was a mess in their remarkable 4-3 victory over Japan and 4-2 defeat against Brazil. Many were thinking Thursday's match would only be a repeat of Euro 2012 final, when Spain outclassed Italy 4-0.
This changed today when Cesare Prandelli changed the team system to a 3-4-2-1, with Christian Maggio as right wing-back and Emanuele Giaccherini on the left.
This not only ensured a better teamwork among the defenders – the Juventus trio of Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Barzagli and Leonardo Bonucci – but also fully capitalised on Maggio’s ability to go up and down the right bank.
Spain’s Jordi Alba won praise for his speed and attacking power, but much like Gareth Bale a few years ago, he often forgot that he was a left-back and not a left-winger.
In the first-half Italy basically relied on Maggio as their main attacking force, be it crossing or those two golden opportunities of headers, precisely because there was much space in Spain’s left after Alba went up. The threat from Maggio only minimised when Alba ceased going up front in the second half.
The introduction of Antonio Candreva on the pitch was also a big plus for Prandelli’s team. He helped Maggio a lot on the right on both attacking and defending. The cheeky chip on the penalty shoot-out added to his brilliant display.
With Mario Balotelli injured, Alberto Gilardino took the role as the sole striker. Honestly speaking, no-one expected him to be another Super Mario, but the Bologna striker did a good job in holding the ball and waiting for the midfielders to come forward. His role wasn’t to put the ball in the net, but to draw defenders away from the box so players like De Rossi and Giaccherini could have a chance to shoot.
De Rossi was the unsung hero, and he proved his presence mattered to the team. He was Andrea Pirlo’s best partner in midfield. When Pirlo was expectedly pressed by the Spaniards, De Rossi took the role of creating chances. When Barzagli was injured, he took the role of centre-defender – a role he was no stranger to – tactically this made Prandelli’s life easier, although Italy clearly missed him in midfield in the second half, as Spain got more space to pass the ball.
Riccardo Montolivo could not do much as the whole team started slowing down, and Alberto Aquilani was a disappointment of the tournament so far.
The team, as a whole, knew how to contain Spain. Minus the extra-time, when the heat and fatigue took over, Spain had not created many chances. Instead of deploying man-marking on Andres Iniesta or David Silva, Prandelli chose to push the midfielders back to create a solid wall ahead of the defence line.
This effectively eliminated Spain’s tactic of tiki-taka football, as they could not find enough space. At this point, the match became much more similar to the 1-1 group stage draw in Euro 2012, rather than the one-sided final.
In fact, Spain’s first shot on-target came at 57min, and by the 90min mark they only had half the number of shots Italy had made – a rare occurrence to a team that used to dominate the pitch.
Giaccherini and Maggio created much trouble for Spain, and it was a pity Italy could not score in the first half. They should have led by at least two goals by the end of the first forty-five minutes. Again, they were not clinical enough.
It was hard to blame them for succumbing to heat and fatigue during extra-time. Spain were a younger team and had much better stamina, and losing on penalties only meant they had played equally with the reigning world champion.
The battle for third place with Uruguay was essentially a meaningless match. Prandelli should considering letting youngsters like Davide Astori, Stephen El Shaarawy and Salvatore Sirigu play.
They are potential team members for the World Cup next year, and it would be best for them to gain some experience. After all, the target has always been 2014.
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