The winners of two of the last three World Cups will go head-to-head on Thursday with both Italy and Spain looking to take a sizable step toward Russia 2018. In what promises to be the most hotly contested of the European qualifying groups, 2006 winners Italy and 2010 champions Spain are vying for just one automatic berth at the next World Cup, with second place only good enough for a potentially tension-filled playoff.
While Euro 2016 qualifiers Albania should not be overlooked and go into the second round of fixtures level at the top of Group G, it would be a major surprise if the two European titans didn't battle for first place. Both Italy and Spain will be particularly eager to not only get to Russia but make a significant impression once there having been stunningly knocked out of the last World Cup before the knockout stage got underway.
Spain’s fall from the all-conquering side that won three successive major tournaments between 2008 and 2012 continued in France this summer. And it was Italy that was its vanquishers, putting on a superb display to claim a 2-0 win in Paris in the round of 16.
While he limped on after the failure at World Cup 2014, the Italy defeat was to prove the end for Spain coach Vicente del Bosque. In his place stepped Julen Lopetegui, who achieved success with Spain’s underage team before spending two years in charge of Porto.
There has been a further changing of the guard on the pitch. Iker Casillas, having for so long maintained his place in goal despite a clear decline in performances, is now not even in the squad, while Koke and Thiago Alcantara, only peripheral figures under Del Bosque, now look to be integral performers in midfield.
Lopetegui might also owe a debt of gratitude to the man who masterminded Italy’s win over Spain this summer, Antonio Conte. Now at Chelsea, the former Juventus coach has helped revive Diego Costa, who has scored six goals in seven Premier League games this season and last month trebled his goal tally for Spain with a double in an emphatic 8-0 win over Liechtenstein.
Conte’s departure means Italy is also in the early days of life under a new coach. Like Spain, the Azzurri opted for something of a low-profile choice, appointing veteran Giampiero Ventura, who most recently enjoyed an impressive spell with Torino.
And, like Lopetegui, Ventura also got off to a winning start in competitive play. Italy’s victory was far tougher fought, having had defender Giorgio Chiellini sent off early in the second half in Israel before a late goal from Ciro Immobile sealed a 3-1 win.
Chiellini’s dismissal means that Italy’s formidable backline, also comprising his Juventus teammates Leonardo Bonucci, Andrea Barzagli and goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon will be broken up for Thursday’s visit of Spain to the Juventus Stadium in Turin.
Buffon’s place in goal continues, though. The 38-year-old shows no signs of being ready to move aside, even if Italy appears to have already lined up his long-term replacement. Milan’s 17-year-old sensation Gianluigi Donnarumma became the youngest goalkeeper ever to turn out for the Azzurri when replacing Buffon at halftime in a friendly defeat to France last month. And Donnarumma returns to the squad this time around.
There is no place, though, for Mario Balotelli. The striker has been rejuvenated since a summer move to Nice, scoring five goals in three Ligue 1 games, but that has not yet been enough to earn him a recall to the Italy squad for the first time since the 2014 World Cup.
"There is no arguing about his technical qualities, it is everything else that is up for discussion," Ventura said at a press conference. "He has started playing and scoring again and there is no doubt about his qualities, but he has to continue giving these performances."
Prediction: Italy’s victory over Spain at Euro 2016 was in such large part down to the tactics employed by Conte that it would be difficult to draw anything from it when looking ahead to Thursday’s matchup, beyond perhaps a slight psychological edge for the Azzurri. Still, history is certainly on Italy’s side. The Azzurri has not lost any of its last 51 qualifiers, for both the World Cup and European Championship, dating back 10 years and have never lost a World Cup qualifier at home. Spain, though, appears to have fresh impetus under Lopetegui and should do enough to secure a draw.
Predicted Score: Italy 1-1 Spain
Goalkeepers: Gianluigi Buffon (Juventus), Gianluigi Donnarumma (AC Milan), Mattia Perin (Genoa)
Defenders: Davide Astori (Fiorentina), Andrea Barzagli (Juventus), Leonardo Bonucci (Juventus), Giorgio Chiellini (Juventus), Angelo Ogbonna (West Ham), Alessio Romagnoli (AC Milan)
Midfielders: Federico Bernardeschi (Fiorentina), Giacomo Bonaventura (AC Milan), Antonio Candreva (Inter Milan), Domenico Criscito (Zenit St. Petersburg), Matteo Darmian (Manchester United), Daniele De Rossi (Roma), Mattia De Sciglio (AC Milan), Alessandro Florenzi (Roma), Riccardo Montolivo (AC Milan), Marco Parolo (Lazio), Marco Verratti (Paris Saint-Germain)
Forwards: Andrea Belotti (Torino), Eder (Inter Milan), Manolo Gabbiadini (Napoli), Ciro Immobile (Lazio), Graziano Pelle (Shandong Luneng), Nicola Sansone (Villareal)
Goalkeepers:David de Gea (Manchester United), Pepe Reina (Napoli) and Sergio Rico (Sevilla).
Defenders: Jordi Alba (Barcelona), Gerard Piqué (Barcelona), Sergio Ramos (Real Madrid), Dani Carvajal (Real Madrid), Sergi Roberto (Barcelona), Nacho (Real Madrid), Iñígo Martínez (Real Sociedad), Javi Martínez (Bayern)
Midfielders: Sergio Busquets (Barcelona), David Silva (Manchester City), Thiago Alcántara (Bayern Munich), Saúl Ñíguez (Atlético Madrid), Koke (Atlético Madrid), Isco (Real Madrid), Andrés Iniesta (Barcelona)
Forwards: Álvaro Morata (Real Madrid), Lucas Vázquez (Real Madrid), Nolito (Manchester City), José Callejón (Nápoles), Diego Costa (Chelsea), Vitolo (Sevilla)
Date:Thursday, Oct. 6
Time: 2.45 p.m. EDT