Spain and Italy traded 12 sublimely struck penalties before Leonardo Bonucci fired over the bar and Jesus Navas stepped up and found the back of the net to send the world and European champions through to the final of the Confederations Cup after an engrossing encounter in Fortaleza.
There may not have been any goals after 120 minutes of action, but it wasn’t for the lack of entertainment as Italy, not for the first time, gave Spain all they could handle. Italy, with a bold and proactive approach, created a host of first-half chances and will feel that they should have been at least a goal to the good at the break. In the second half they controlled possession more than perhaps any side has done against Spain in recent times. But with the introduction of Jesus Navas, Spain began to create the better of the openings as the match wore on. Both sides struck the post in extra time, but they could not be separated all the way up to the decisive miss by the Juventus center-back.
Italy, who also tested Spain in both the group stage and final of Euro 2012, again cruelly fell short, while Spain head to the final against the hosts Brazil in Rio de Janeiro to try and win the one international title to thus far elude them.
It had actually been Spain that started the better, putting Italy under pressure and going close when Pedro shot wide from 20 yards out. But very quickly, it was Italy’s game plan that began to dominate the narrative of this semifinal.
In a repeat of their opening match with Spain at Euro 2012, and to a lesser extent the final, Italy were not prepared to kowtow to Spain as so many of the world and European champions’ opponents have done. With their three-man back line, the Azzurri squeezed up and restricted space for Spain to operate through the middle. The system also enabled Italy to quickly turn defense into attack as they continually did especially with early balls to exploit Spain out wide.
Particularly effective was Italy’s identifying of the defensive susceptibility of Spain’s marauding left-back Jordi Alba. Indeed, right wing-back Christian Maggio dominated the duel with the Barcelona man in the opening 45 minutes. Still, for all that was good about both he and his side in that first half, Maggio and Italy failed to take advantages of the numerous chances they created.
Incredibly Maggio had a trio of headed opportunities, all of which he would like to have back. The first was put over the bar from a corner, while later on he twice headed straight at Iker Casillas when a yard either side may well have seen the ball finding the back of the net.
As if those weren’t enough, more clear-headed chances were spurned by Claudio Marchisio and Daniele de Rossi, while Maggio’s excellent low cross was swept poorly wide by Alberto Gilardino.
In contrast, Spain had created very little going forward, with the two enforced changes to the side, David Silva and Fernando Torres struggling to make any impact. Torres was especially poor and also missed his side’s best chance of the half. Admittedly he largely created the opening himself with a good turn on Andrea Barzagli but then dragged his shot poorly wide.
Barzagli was later forced off with an injury at the interval, to be replaced by Riccardo Montolivo meaning that the influential De Rossi dropped back into the back three. Still, Italy continued to impress after the break, although it was a much less explosive half than the first. For Spain, Andres Iniesta was able to find space running at the defense for the first real time in the match but twice fired efforts wildly off target.
At the other end, Italy were creating far less than the opening period, although they incredibly had the lion share of possession against the tiki-taka masters. In the closing stages Spain looked increasingly threatening going forward, with Navas yet again making a positive impact after coming on. But when his cross was skied over the bar by Gerard Pique from 12 yards, the last clear chance of normal time had passed.
There were far more goal-mouth incidents in extra time than in the previous 45 minutes and, indeed, both teams struck the woodwork as they tried to avoid the tension of penalties. First, in the opening minutes, Emanuele Giaccherini blasted against the post with Casillas unmoved after Sebastian Giovinco’s near-post effort had deflected into his path.
Yet, with Italy appearing to be suffering greater in the stifling conditions of Fortaleza, it was Spain that had the better of the extended 30 minutes. And Vicente del Bosque’s side pushed strongly for a winner in the closing minutes and came desperately close when Xavi curled a shot from 25 yards that Buffon almost fatally misjudged but just got enough of a hand on the ball to take it onto the post. The Italian veteran also made a superb save to deny Navas to ensure his chance to become a hero in a shootout.
Instead, despite a penalty showdown featuring the two finest goalkeepers of their generation, neither Buffon or Casillas got their hand on the ball as a succession of coolly and clinically struck kicks found the net. But there is always one villain of the piece and on this occasion it was the unfortunate Bonucci as Spain again survived a thorough examination at the hands of Italy.
Sports reporter, mainly focusing on my native sport of soccer, but also dabbling in some tennis and Formula One.