KEIR RADNEDGE in ST-DENIS: Two years ago in Brazil, Spain lost their world title; here in the Stade de France, against bitter old rivals Italy, they lost the European title which has been theirs for the past eight years.
Goals from Giorgio Chiellini in the first half and Graziano Pelle just before the end were crucial blows but a 2-0 victory would not have been possible without the second-half brilliance of Italy’s veteran goalkeeper captain Gigi Buffon.
Spain’s dominance of the national team scene has been remarkable. They beat Germany to win the European title in 2008, claimed the World Cup against Holland in 2010 and then repeated their European triumph by thrashing Italy, of all people, by 4-0 in Kiev in 2010.
The cracks began to show, however, when Vicente Del Bosque’s team crumbled out of the World Cup in Brazil. The national team retirement of Barcelona fulcrum Xavi left a gap which could not be filled and allowed Italy to take long-awaited revenge.
These two nations and Spanish have been clashing football swords at elite level ever since the 1934 World Cup; their confrontations speak of blood, sweat and tears.
This latest set-to, in the Stade de France with a place at stake in the Euro 2016 quarter-finals, was no different while also being a superb contest of will and skill.
The Latin rivalry goes back decades, to a bad-tempered, physical clash at the quarter-finals of the 1934 World Cup when Italy, desperate to win in front of their own fans, trod all over legendary goalkeeper Ricardo Zamora and Co before winning in a replay.
Later came the notorious incident in Boston 1994 when Mauro Tassotti’s elbow laid out Spain’s Luis Enrique and Italy won 2-1 with a late goal from Roberto Baggio.
Spain gained revenge at European Championship level. They defeated Italy 4-2 on penalties in the quarters on the way to the 2008 title then thrashed the Azzurri 4-0 in the 2012 final in Kiev. David Silva, Jordi Alba, Fernando Torres and Juan Mata scored the goals.
Silva and Alba were still in place for this meeting in Saint-Denis but finished on the losing side after Italy took a vice-like grip on the first half. That seizure of the initiative by Antonio Conte’s men meant Spain had to abandon their patient style in the second half and chase the game in a manner to which they have condemned so many opponents of their own.
In the first half Italy, playing against type, took the game to Spain continuously. Pelle saw De Gea push his a header around the post and then an acrobatic overhead scissors kick from Emanuele Giaccherini bounced against the keeper’s left-hand post before the Azzurri gained their deserved reward after 30 minutes.
Sergio Ramos brojught down Pelle just outside the penalty boc, Eder ramed his free kick through the wall and, when De Gea failed to hold the ball as Giaccherini dived in so Chiellini pounced in the follow-up melee.
De Gea redeemed himself just on half-time when he flew up to his left to push over the bar a ferocious drive from Giaccherini which provided Spain with a realistic foundation on which to build their recovery work.
Alvaro Morata should have scored when the ball popped up after a corner but, from the edge of the goal area, he pushed a weak header directly into the waiting arms of his Juventus team-mate Gigi Buffon.
Spain’s change of strategy promised opportunity for Italy on the break, of course, albeit very few. One did fall to Eder, chasing clear, but De Gea saved with his feet.
Back flew Spain and twice Buffon’s reflexes were tested as he fisted away ever more powerful drives at goal from Andres Iniesta and Gerard Pique.
Entering the closing stages, Italy coach Antonio Conte brought on fresh-legged reinforcements in the shape of Lorenzo Insigne and Matteo Darmian after earlier replacing Daniele De Rossi with Thiago Motta while Spain boss Vicente Del Bosque, in a last throw of the dice, brought supersub Pedro into the fray.
Buffon made a yet better save, from Pique at close range, to set up the climactic Italian raid which ended with Southampton centre-forward Pelle volleying home the killer goal.