It has been the “European Classic” of the last decade. Italy and Spain will square off tonight on their way to the 2018 World Cup, but this is only the last occurrence of a match and a rivalry that animated European football in the last 10 years.
Tonight’s game between the Azzurri and Las Furias Rojas will be a crucial one. Losing it – or, in the case of the Italian side, even not winning it – will mean having to pass through an additional playoff round to gain a ticket for next year’s football fest in Russia. You don’t often get to see a match involving two potential world cup contenders in a qualification round, but yeah – when Italy and Spain face each other on a football pitch, it’s never normal business.
Therefore, as we prepare for tonight’s showdown, let’s take a look at the last occurrences of this long-lasting feud. Without going too much back in time, we will only briefly mention Italy’s win in the 1994 World Cup quarter final, stained by Mauro Tassotti’s infamous elbow blow to Luis Enrique, but also embellished by one of Roberto Baggio’s most beautiful goal wearing the maglia azzurra.
Disclaimer for Italian fans: This is obviously going to be a painful exercise for the Azzurri supporters, who after the 1994 win were mostly on the receiving end against a team living their most successful period ever.
Our real excursus starts from 2008 and a quarter final match in the Austrian-Swiss European Championship – an event which constituted an important turning point in both national sides’ recent history.
The Azzurri have come to Switzerland with a World Champion badge on their chest, after having unexpectedly prevailed two years earlier in the world cup competition. But the Italian squad’s core players are now well past their prime, and their run through the group stage has been all but impressive. Conversely, the Spaniards come from a (yet another) disappointing experience at the last World Cup, where they were brutally knocked out by France in the Round of 16. Coach Luis Aragones’ boys move easily past Group D with 3 wins in the 3 games, but that’s no big news: La Roja has accustomed us to such flawless starts, only to vanquish when the going gets tough.
The quarter final match in Vienna is not a memorable one. Italy and Spain don’t manage to hurt each other in 120 minutes, and the game gets to get decided via penalty shoot-outs. Daniele De Rossi and Antonio Di Natale miss their penalty shots, and when Cesc Fabregas puts the ball past Gianluigi Buffon, it’s time for handover: The former World Champions surrender the European throne to those who, two years later, will also succeed to them in the World Cup winners’ list.
The game against Italy was probably their less impressive performance at Euro 2008, but there’s no doubt that Spain, and especially their rising star midfielders Andres Iniesta and Xavi, are on their way to become a world class team. The Azzurri go home with an “honorable defeat” at penalties, which contributes to masquerade the fact that their winning generation is at the end of its tether. Coach Roberto Donadoni is inelegantly sacked by FIGC, the local Football Federation, to bring back to the bench World Cup winner Marcello Lippi.
Fast forward to four years later, another European Championship, this time co-hosted by Poland and Ukraine. Spain and Italy are drawn in the same Group, and once again they arrive at the continental tournament with opposite moods and records. Las Furias Rojas, now coached by Vicente Del Bosque, are peaking: In 2010, they captured their first world title and they did it – quite ironically – the “Italian way,” with four 1-0 wins in a row in the last 4 knockout matches. On the other hand, Italy’s trip to South Africa was a disaster. Marcello Lippi failed to live up to the hype in his second run as head coach of the Azzurri, who were kicked out of the competition after 3 games.
The opening match of Group C starts well for Italy, now coached by Cesare Prandelli, with Antonio Di Natale redeeming himself from the missed penalty from 4 years earlier, by giving his squad the lead one hour into the game. However, the illusion lasts only 3 minutes – that’s how much Cesc Fabregas (him, once again!) needs to equalise for the final 1-1. Both team manage to advance to the knockout phase, and are due to see each other again only in the Final, if things go well.
And things happen to go well, actually. Spain gets rid of France in the Quarter Finals, but needs the penalties to eliminate Portugal after a goalless Semi Final match. They don’t look like an Armada Invencible, and are rather being criticized for their defensive play. On the Italian side, enthusiasm is rampant. Nobody was hoping for the Azzurri to make it to the final, but a penalty shoot-out victory against England is followed by a spectacular 2-1 win against Germany – whose march so far had been impressive. It will be wild boy Mario Balotelli’s last meaningful performance with the maglia azzurra, and his two goals confirm Italy’s role as the German nemesis.
But Spain is still objectively superior, and the Azzurri arrive to the final match on their knees. It quickly becomes clear that this is not going to be their night. 21 minutes into the game, they lose defensive pillar Giorgio Chiellini because of an injury. As if that was not enough, 3rd substitute Thiago Motta also has to leave the pitch after suffering a hamstring injury, and that forces the Nazionale, who has no more changes available, to play the last 30 minutes with one man less. Spain is already leading 2-0 at that point.
The Final inevitably turns into a bloodbath, with La Roja scoring 2 more goals, and Spanish goalie Iker Casillas asking the referee to show “respeto para Italia” and blow the final whistle before the expected additional time.
Coach Del Bosque leads his squad to the third major international title in a row – an unprecedented achievement in world football. But, at the end of the day, the Italians can also be happy about their European campaign, despite the final slaughter and the fact that Spain has by now become their nemesis.
Which proves to be even truer one year later, when another knockout game between and Spain and Italy ends up in favor of the Spaniards. This time, the occasion is a Confederations Cup Semi Final in Brazil. Italy’s presence at the competition is a kind gift from Spain itself, whose right to participate in quality of both incumbent World Champions and European Champions, leaves room to the Euro 2012 finalist to represent Europe.
Italy and Spain square off in the Semi Final, and it’s another goalless draw. It takes 7 penalties per team to decide the match, before Leonardo Bonucci’s miss sent the Spaniards forward once again. But maybe the gap is reducing, and Spain’s crushing defeat to Brazil in the Final is a hint that the Spanish fantastic cycle has started to decline.
World Cup 2014 is a forgettable experience for both contenders. Spain gets unexpectedly sent off in the group stage, and the new Brazilian experience shows the inevitable passing of the years for players as Xavi, Iniesta, and Casillas. Italy does even worse, and collects its second World Cup first round elimination in a row. The competition marks the end of Cesare Prandelli’s tenure as head coach for his side.
A new occasion for confrontation arises – guess what – during the next edition of European Championships. La Roja and the Azzurri go to France in 2016 with downsized ambitions – Vicente Del Bosque aiming at squeezing the very last drop out of his Golden Generation, and Italian new coach Antonio Conte having to make do with what the local press is defining Italy’s“less talented national selection ever.”
Euro 2016 is the first one extended to 24 teams, and a Round of 16 follows the group stage. Once again, when the knockout phase kicks in, Italy and Spain have to face each other to decide which one will make it to the next round. The match at the Stade de France finally produces a change of trend in the long-lasting rivalry. Italy’s notorious defensive line – the BBC, Barzagli-Bonucci-Chiellini – is at its best and does not concede anything to las Furias Rojas. This time, Giorgio Chiellini manages to play for 90 minutes and also takes the chance to convert a free kick pass into the Italians’ 1-0. A late doubling by Graziano Pelle’ sets the score to 2-0. The curse is broken.
The elimination of Spain coincides with Vicente Del Bosque’s retirement, whereas the Azzurri’s run ends in the Quarter Finals against Germany (Yes, Euro 2016 was definitely a competitions where nemesis were won…). Antonio Conte also decides to call his experience to an end and moves to coach English squad Chelsea.
Is that over? Of course not.
Draw pots for the World Cup 2018 decide to revamp the feud for the umpteenth time by placing Italy and Spain in the same European qualification group. This is how we get to tonight’s match. The teams have already faced each other one year ago in Turin, and Spain did come back to make the Nazionale uncomfortable again. It took a late penalty by Daniele De Rossi to balance Vitolo’s earlier goal and save Italy from another defeat against their eternal rivals.
Both teams’ run in the group continued without bumps, so that they now find themselves leading the standings with 16 points. Spain has a better goal difference, which would make them comfortable with a draw tonight. Conversely, the Azzurri have no choice but conquering Madrid and come home with 3 points, if they want to avoid the November in-or-out playoff games.
For Italy’s new coach Giampiero Ventura, this is the real trial of fire. If you think about it, it only makes sense that it’s coming against the team that has been haunting the Azzurri’s dreams the most in the last decade.