Antonio Di Natale scored with his first touch as an impressive Italy performance held Spain to a 1-1 draw in the Group C opener.
The Azzurri began their Euro 2012 campaign in the Polish coastal town of Gdansk against the reigning World and European Champions. After three consecutive friendly defeats without scoring a goal, Cesare Prandelli switched to a 3-5-2 system with Daniele De Rossi re-routed to centre-back next to Leonardo Bonucci and a fit-again Giorgio Chiellini. The big surprise was in midfield, where Emanuele Giaccherini was chosen to start despite being uncapped and played in Serie C2 only four years ago.
Spain also shocked many by choosing a 4-3-3 system with no recognisable centre-forwards. Carles Puyol and David Villa are out of the tournament due to injury, but Fernando Torres was dropped. La Roja qualified with a 100 per cent record and were unbeaten in official competition since June 2010, but had never beaten Italy over 90 minutes in a major tournament.
Azzurri fans did not lose their sense of humour about the scandal leading into the competition, holding up a banner that read: ‘We’re betting on you…’
Some chaotic defending managed to stop David Silva getting his shot away in the box, who then ballooned over from the resulting corner. Mario Balotelli’s effort was deflected wide, but their third corner of the opening 10 minutes was again wasteful.
David Silva’s weak finish ended a dangerous Spanish counter-attack, sparked by Balotelli’s error. Antonio Cassano earned a soft free kick just outside the penalty area that Andrea Pirlo took forcing Iker Casillas to palm away low.
Thiago Motta’s promising counter was interrupted by Arbeloa’s very high foot hitting him on the shoulder as he tried to burst into the box on to a Balotelli pass, but the referee waved play on. Spain were also halted for an incorrect offside flag.
Cassano charged forward on to Claudio Marchisio’s through ball for an angled drive that skimmed the base of the far post on 22 minutes.
Andres Iniesta managed to dribble into the area and his shot was charged down crucially by De Rossi, who was taking very well to the role of centre-back. Giorgio Chiellini glanced his head to an Iniesta cross to stop it reaching Xavi and from the corner Gigi Buffon blocked a powerful Iniesta strike at the base of the near post.
Cassano tripped former Real Madrid teammate Casillas and was fortunate to avoid a yellow card. It was getting more open, as De Rossi intercepted a dangerous move after a poor clearance and on the counter Casillas parried a fierce Cassano strike. Balotelli collided with his marker and with the free kick given against him, punched the turf in frustration. SuperMario was booked soon after.
On 36 minutes Cassano pulled back from the left flank for a corking Marchisio volley that stung Casillas’ palms.
Iniesta again went on a mazy run that the defence eventually managed to block, as did Leonardo Bonucci to charge down a Cesc Fabregas shot from seven yards.
Just before the break Iniesta did well to trap a long pass and immediately lob it over Buffon, but also over the bar.
In stoppages Italy went much closer, as Thiago Motta’s glancing header from the outside edge of the six-yard box was brilliantly parried by one Casillas hand.
The second half kicked off with Buffon palming a Fabregas effort round the base of the near post. De Rossi then did enough to deflect Iniesta’s shot that flashed across the face of goal from close range.
Balotelli wasted an incredible scoring opportunity on 54 minutes when he robbed Sergio Ramos down the right flank and went alone into the area, but hesitated with only Casillas to beat and allowed the defender to come back for the crucial tackle. The Manchester City striker fell asleep there.
Cassano also curled over when going down the left and Balotelli wasted another chance with a bad pass, so made way for Antonio Di Natale. Arbeloa escaped a booking for hauling down Cassano to ruin a counter-attack.
It proved to be an inspired substitution, as the Udinese veteran broke the deadlock moments later! He ran on to a perfect Pirlo pass to split the Spanish defence and curled it round Casillas with the inside of his right foot. It was a special moment for Di Natale, who had missed a penalty in the Euro 2008 shoot-out against Spain, not to mention it was his first touch of the game.
Buffon comfortably smothered a long-range Iniesta shot, but as the move continued Fabregas equalised. It was a well-worked move and a pass with the outside of Silva’s foot sent the former Arsenal man through to flick past Buffon.
Bonucci was booked for a late and high tackle on Iniesta, while Arbeloa volleyed wide relatively unmarked after Jesus Navas skipped past Giaccherini. Fernando Torres replaced scorer Fabregas for the final 16 minutes.
Torres immediately had a fantastic chance to put Spain in front on a counter-attack when a pass allowed him to spring the offside trap in midfield, but he hesitated and Buffon managed to tackle it off his feet.
Giovinco’s smart chipped pass found Di Natale, who was off balance for a volley wide in acres of space.
Chiellini also went into the book for a tackle on Iniesta, but Xavi’s free kick was right into the wall. Torres had another promising counter-attack and was one-on-one with De Rossi, but Giaccherini snuck up to pinch the ball.
Arbeloa was booked for hauling down Giovinco off the ball, quickly followed by Torres for elbowing De Rossi.
Buffon was well off his line after a defensive error and was glad to see the Torres chip go over the empty net on 85 minutes. The goalkeeper also smothered a Jesus Navas cross for Torres, then at the other end Marchisio surged forward from midfield with a great give-and-go, but the finish was too weak to beat Casillas.
Maggio also went into the book and Antonio Nocerino replaced Thiago Motta. Xabi Alonso drilled wide from the edge of the box in stoppages after more great work from Iniesta.
Spain 1-1 Italy
Scorers: Di Natale 61 (I), Fabregas 64 (S)
Spain:Casillas; Arbeloa, Piquè, Sergio Ramos, Jordi Alba; Xavi, Busquets, Xabi Alonso; Silva (Jesus Navas 65), Fabregas (Torres 74), Iniesta
Italy:Buffon; Bonucci, De Rossi, Chiellini; Maggio, Thiago Motta (Nocerino 90), Pirlo, Marchisio, Giaccherini; Cassano (Giovinco 65), Balotelli (Di Natale 57)
Ref: Kassai (Hun)