KEIR RADNEDGE in GDANSK
— If Spain and Italy follow up their 1-1 draw in the city of Solidarity by finishing first and second in Group C then they may yet meet again in the Final in Kyiv on July 1. That, judging from the class of ‘merely’ an opening encounter, would not betray Euro 2012.
The two have been playing each other since the 1920 Olympics, usually with something at stake and usually, until recent years, with the Azzurri holding the upper hand.
Now the balance has been redressed since Spain ended years of frustration by living up to their potential in collecting the 2008 European crown and 2010 World Cup. Both victories were merited, to match the twin-titles achievements of West Germany in the early 1970s and France at the turn of century, so now the Triple Crown is within reach.
It would be ironic if they were to be denied by the opponents who pushed them hardest right back in 2008, where it began. Spain needed penalties to edge Italy in the quarter-finals on the way to their European triumph. Very little, still, separates these two old foes right now.
Italy’s performance never hinted at any weight of concern over the catalogue of domestic scandals. They could have come away with all three points. Spain were vulnerable. Not only had the holders come to Poland without injured David Villa but coach Vicente Del Bosque overlooked both Fernando Torres and Fernando Llorente and set up his double champions without a recognised striker.
This was nothing new. Back in the autumn of 2010 Craig Levein lined up Scotland without a striker against the Czech Republic in a World Cup qualifier.
By an odd twist of fate, Del Bosque had even been moved to comment on it at the time, saying: “If this is how he is going to play then it’ll be because he has a set plan to get the best from his team . . . perhaps he is reserving his best attackers for later on.”
Maybe Del Bosque remembered. Only in the later stages, as the Italians tired and lost their shape, did he call on the attacking pace of substitutes Jesus Navas and Fernando Torres. They came close to making the difference but not close enough. Both teams, at the final whistle, will have felt confident of coping with whatever else the group may throw at them.
Play flowed energetically and probingly from one goal area to another albeit with Spain keeper Iker Casillas being stretched the more than evergreen Gigi Buffon in the first half at least.
Buffon was first into action, saving a low effort from David Silva then it was Casillas diving right to deflect a free kick from Andrea Pirlo. Gerard Pique had an angled drive saved by Buffon; Antonio Casssano had a rasping effort tidily fielded by Casillas. Andres Iniesta volleyed over from a perceptive Xavi assist and a glancing header from Thiago Motta drew a sharp-reflex right-hand save from Casillas.
The second half followed a similar pattern. Iniesta and Xavi gave Fabregas the opportunity to draw another fine save from Buffon and then Fabregas returned the favour for Iniesta to fire acoss the face of goal. At the other end Mario Balotelli squandered the best chance. He dispossesed Sergio Ramos out on the right but took so long over ambling towards goal that the Real Madrid man had time to recover and save the day and his own embarrassment.
Italy coach Cesare Prandelli withdrew Balotelli almost immediately and virtually the first action of sub Antonio Di Natale was to put Italy ahead as he capitalised on a magisterial through pass from Andrea Pirlo. If that appeared, by now, a mite against the run of second-half play then the balance was soon restored: David Silva threaded the needle and Fabregas sewed up the equaliser.
Honours even . . . for now, at least.
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