Whether that counts as a shock depends on how stern a view one takes of their fall from grace in Brazil two years ago, though what is indisputable is that Italy were superior in almost every department with the possible exception of finishing.
If Antonio Conte had a predator at his disposal in the great Italian tradition the scoreline might have been even more emphatic. As it was Italy were hanging on before Graziano Pellè’s breakaway clincher in stoppage time set up a quarter-final against Germany in Bordeaux on Saturday, a position they should never have been in after controlling the game.
“We threatened them a lot, it is not easy to make so many chances against a Spain team full of superstars,” Conte said. “Maybe we should have had another goal in the first half, or in the second when Éder was through on goal, that’s the small regret we have. But the performance was incredible. Apart from a small period in the second half we did not suffer from Spain’s ball possession.”
It might have been the effect of the downpour after kick-off that soaked the players and sent spectators in the Saint-Denis front seats scuttling for cover on the stairways, but Spain were strangely slow to get into their stride. “We were a bit timid in the first half, we were better in the second but we were forced to be,” Vicente del Bosque said. “We hoped to go further but only one team can win and Italy were better.”
Italy made the first couple of openings, with David de Gea twice busy in the opening 10 minutes, first getting down low to his left to keep out a Pellè header from a free-kick then reacting well to push Emanuele Giaccherini’s overhead effort onto a post. Italy seemed sharper, even if the slippery conditions made precise passing difficult, and though Andrés Iniesta was doing his best to launch attacks he was doing so from positions a long way from goal.
Italy’s main strength is defence, Robbie Brady’s header against them in Lille was the only goal they conceded in their first three matches, and when David Silva and Nolito finally managed to present Cesc Fàbregas with a shooting opportunity midway through the first half Mattia De Sciglio was swiftly out of the defensive line to block.
The left wing-back was quite an influential figure in the first half, even if he did pick up yet another Italian caution, for a shirt pull. He provided the cross from which Marco Parolo headed wide as Italy came forward again, and also the teasing ball across the face of goal which Sergio Ramos could only divert at the expense of a corner, almost putting through his own net in his determination to prevent it reaching Pellè at the far post.
Italy needed something to show for their pressure, and just after the half-hour mark they gained their reward for an encouraging start. Gerard Piqué fouled Pellè on the edge of the area, De Gea could not hold Éder’s powerful free-kick, and of the two Italians who were quicker than the Spanish defence to the rebound Giorgio Chiellini got there after Giaccherini but provided the crucial last touch.De Gea did well to keep out the initial shot but will blame himself for not making a clean save, or at least for not getting a firm enough hand to the ball to push it away to safety.
The Italians coolly protected their lead until the interval and were quite good value for it. With a little more pace Éder and Alessandro Florenzi’s runs down the left might have done more damage then merely making Ramos feel his age, and right at the end of the half it took a flying fingertip save from De Gea to prevent Giaccherini’s effort curling into his top corner. Gianluigi Buffon, in contrast, had been underemployed in the first period. Spain were a disappointment going forwards. Neither Silva nor Iniesta were able to bring Nolito or Álvaro Morata into the game.
Nolito did not reappear for the second half with Aritz Aduriz on in his place, and though the Italians seems to have grown in stature and confidence during the interval Spain did at least open their attacking account when Álvaro Morata’s header from a Fàbregas cross forced Buffon to make his first save.That was a routine stop, however, the header was straight at the Italian goalkeeper, whereas
De Gea had to come to his side’s rescue again when Pellè slipped Éder clear through on goal. De Gea stood his ground as he has done so often for Manchester United and blocked the shot with his body, though in truth Éder should probably have done better. Éder and Giaccherini between them missed a couple more opportunities to make the game safe, and Italy consequently had to sweat as Aduriz and Ramos went close for Spain.
The tension in the closing minutes was amply demonstrated when Conte booted the ball down the touchline in frustration, possibly risking a caution for timewasting, and by the end Italy were living dangerously, with Buffon having to deal with shots from Iniesta and Piqué. To redress that balance substitute Lorenzo Insigne whisked past Ramos and brought another save from De Gea, before Buffon had to made another stop from Piqué in the closing seconds of normal time. It was redeemed in the end through Pellè’s stoppage-time volley from Matteo Darmian’s cross, and Italy were not flattered by a two-goal margin, though they will not be installed as favourites against Germany without sharpening their goal instincts.
“Germany are a cut above the rest, I don’t mind saying that,” said Conte. “They are the best side at these championships bar none, and we are going to have to face the without Thiago Motta, who is suspended, and possibly Daniele De Rossi, who has hurt his rib. Germany are a great team and there are a lot of hurdles in our path, but when the going gets tough we can often manage to respond.”
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