Given their most recent meeting and the group stage results, this was supposed to be a one-sided affair. An easy Spanish passage to the Confederations Cup Final. The Brazil-Spain Final script had already been written, except Italy were not handed the memo. They were determined this match would be nothing like their last encounter.
Sad news came through less than two hours before kick-off that ex-Fiorentina, Milan and Italy striker Stefano Borgonovo lost his battle with ALS, aged 49. Then, for 120 minutes at the Estádio Castelão in Fortaleza against the World and European Champions, the Azzurri gave their best performance of the tournament.
It was a showing of grit, style and tactical nous – a truly worthy display. Only the old bête noire of penalties denied a place in the Final following an absorbing 0-0 draw, Leonardo Bonucci the player to falter from the spot as it ended 7-6. Deadlocked through normal and extra time in the sapping heat, both sides were collected and clinical from 12 yards.
This was a different Azzurri than seen previously in Brazil. They’ve been involved in two goalfests – games riddled with errors – but here looked polished. The defence, criticised for conceding eight goals in three matches, proved solid and assuring. Italy reduced Spain to few clear-cut chances, even if they retained the majority of possession. A big part of the reason was the change in system.
Think back to a year ago. Italy surprised by playing a 3-5-2 in the opening match of Euro 2012. They earned a 1-1 draw in Gdansk and pushed Spain all the way. Vicente Del Bosque admitted on Wednesday his side were second best then. When they met in the Final in Kiev, Cesare Prandelli reverted to his favoured four man defence and trequartista. Italy did not look the same side as they fell to defeat.
What the Fortaleza match has shown is that a three-man defence, popular in Serie A, could well be the way forward for this Italian side. Given the team is littered with Juventus players – seven of the Fortaleza starting XI don the Bianconeri shirt – it makes sense. It can also get the best out of others. The formation was slightly altered here to more of a 3-4-2-1 and sometimes saw both attacking midfielders drop deeper, but fundamentals of the system were evident.
The non-Juventini also looked at home on Thursday. Daniele De Rossi, like a year ago, found himself utilised as an emergency central defender when Andrea Barzagli went off at the interval. In both that role and his more traditional midfield position, the Roma man shone. Christian Maggio was another to benefit. He is an example of a player lost in the back four, but excellent in his natural role. The Napoli player – along with the equally impressive Antonio Candreva – had free rein of the right flank in the first half. This forced Del Bosque to change. Candreva was a tireless worker off the ball and an outlet in possession.
Meanwhile, Alberto Gilardino had the difficult task of replacing Mario Balotelli and while not testing Iker Casillas as much as he would’ve liked, he put in an honest and busy shift. Special mention to one of the Bianconeri, with Emanuele Giaccherini continuing his impressive tournament. Fielded here as a wing-back, his battery never died and he caused continual concern for the Spanish.
It’s hard to find fault with any of the players, but perhaps the substitutes did not influence as needed. Sebastian Giovinco and Alberto Aquilani failed to get into the game. In saying that, even when Riccardo Montolivo moved into De Rossi’s position alongside Andrea Pirlo the intensity did not let up. Nor did Italy hand Spain the initiative for prolonged periods. Spain were left chasing the ball. Spain were the ones shutting down space with 11 men behind the ball. How many times has that occurred in the past five years?
The only negative was Italy’s inability to finish chances. They did enough to win in 90 minutes. Claudio Marchisio saw a diving header flash wide, while the marauding Maggio was twice foiled by Casillas. Giaccherini thumped the post and then as Spain took extra-time ascendency, Xavi did the same.
In a side shorn of Balotelli, the options looked limited in attack. This is an issue to mull over in the next 12 months but if a 3-5-2 is the way forward, the Milan man needs a regular partner. Preferably somebody to link him and the midfield. Could it be Antonio Cassano? Perhaps Lorenzo Insigne? The options are there.
Prandelli must settle on a formation. He was reluctant to go to a back three until this match, but a porous Azzurri looked shaky in the group stage with a four-man defence. Compare that to the performance on Thursday. The case sample for a trio is small – it has worked with Spain, but less effective versus Croatia and Bulgaria – yet should seriously be considered given the players available. It may add an extra defender, but doesn’t mean Italy cannot control possession or create chances. This match showed that.
Italy have one match left, the third-fourth playoff against Uruguay on Sunday. Given the weary bodies and quick turnaround it’s likely there will be changes aplenty. The Azzurri will aim to leave Brazil on a winning note but while it may not have felt like it when Jesus Navas converted, they’ve already reached their high point. The semi-final proved Italy can be considered contenders come next June.