Italy’s 2-0 victory over Belgium was one of the standout results and performances of the Euro 2016 group stage. Yet by the time the group stage was completed, it was hard not to conclude that Belgium, and not Italy, had been the real victors that day.
The result was the difference in securing top spot in Group E, but that brought little reward. While second place earned Belgium a last 16 meeting with Hungary and a position on the favorable side of the draw, Italy was thrown into the side containing the winners of nine of the 14 previous European Championships, including the side it will face in the first knockout round, Spain.
Yet, while hardly an ideal draw for Italy, it is one that its unlikely to hold any fear. Indeed, its less than impressive performances against Sweden and the Republic of Ireland, on the heels of shrewdly disposing of Belgium, perhaps demonstrated that this Italian team is more adept when going up against more talented teams.
The lack of talent in Italy’s ranks was widely discussed ahead of Euro 2016, a dearth not helped by injuries ruling out midfield duo Marco Verratti and Claudio Marchisio. But what it does have is perhaps the best defense in the tournament, one led by goalkeeping legend Gianluigi Buffon and which has been the bedrock of Juventus’ five successive Serie A titles.
And in Antonio Conte, who will take charge of Chelsea following Euro 2016, Italy has one of the tournament’s smartest, best-prepared coaches. His nous was shown when Italy and Spain last faced off, just three months ago when the Azzurri had the better of a 1-1 draw in Udine. Conte’s tactics worked a treat that day, and he is sure to have a specific plan in mind on Monday.
“When you get to the end of the competitions, there are a lot of different details that make the difference,” Italy striker Graziano Pellè said. “We try to work on all of them. The trainer [Conte] is really good at that but then it’s us on the field and we have to show the desire and everything to win.”
Rather than the March friendly, Spain would rather look back on the sides’ last competitive meeting. That came in the final of the last European Championship, when Spain, just weeks after drawing 1-1 with the same opponent in the opening round of group matches, blew Italy away 4-0 to seal back-to-back Euro titles.
Since then, of course, there has been significant upheaval. The disaster of its World Cup title defense in Brazil proved to be the last stand for a trio of players who had been integral in the team’s remarkable years of success — Xavi, Xabi Alonso and David Villa.
Vicente del Bosque remained in charge to oversee a new era, but it has very much been a evolution rather than evolution. As well as David de Gea finally replacing Iker Casillas in goal, only forwards Alvaro Morata and Nolito represent real newcomers in the starting lineup so far at Euro 2016.
It is that duo that has been tasked with providing the cutting edge to supplement the silky passing play that remains the hallmark of Spain’s game. They certainly delivered in the second game of the team’s group phase, when Morata scored twice and Nolito grabbed the other goal in an impressive 3-0 victory over Turkey. Morata found the net again against Croatia, but a saved penalty from the boot of defender Sergio Ramos and a late goal from Ivan Perisic led to a 2-1 defeat.
It proved a costly defeat. With Croatia topping Group D, Spain was bumped into second spot, leading not only to a meeting with Italy but a place on the tough side of the draw. Whoever survives Monday’s high-profile clash at the Stade de France is likely to face world champion Germany in the quarterfinals.
Prediction: With a 3-4-3 formation, Italy gave Spain a lot of trouble in the sides’ friendly in March. And Conte is certainly capable of overcoming Italy’s significant talent disadvantage to upset the two-time defending champion. Yet Spain may just come through. While the defeat to Croatia was a real blow, it would likely have been a very different story had Ramos converted his penalty. And Spain has largely impressed so far in this tournament, with Barcelona’s Andres Iniesta running the show and becoming an early contender to be Euro 2016’s outstanding player. If Morata can find a way past his former Juventus teammates at the back for Italy, Spain can secure victory, but perhaps not without extra time or even penalties.
Predicted score: Spain 2-1 Italy
Date: Monday, June 27
Kickoff Time: Noon EDT