In terms of entertainment stakes, Italy’s clash with Spain did not make for pretty viewing. It produced the dour, backs-to-the-wall display that the Azzurri have frequently become associated with. Though the Spanish bull eventually battered down the visitors’ defences with a solitary Pedro Rodriguez strike, Cesare Prandelli’s matadors were able to stand their ground against swaths of possession for long periods.
Credit to the valiant Italians then, but something ill-deserved according to their Coach, who bemoaned a disjointed performance: “At this moment of the season the fitness levels compared to Spain are almost embarrassing.” Fatigued players aside, the squad had suffered their share of distractions and controversy coming into the game.
There was the matter of Prandelli’s contract renewal after the World Cup, and the 56-year-old needing to fend off pre-match questions regarding the exclusion of Daniele De Rossi owing to his imposed code of ethics, and his inclusion of the half-fit Giorgio Chiellini, to Juventus’ chagrin. The back-and-forth bickering therefore threatened to scupper their final ‘friendly’ test before a ball had even been kicked.
But as a starting XI missing Mario Balotelli, Andrea Pirlo and Giuseppe Rossi showed stepping out into the cauldron of the Vicente Calderon, you can never ever rule out Italy. The world champions took customary control of proceedings, putting the hurt on Christian Maggio and Domenico Criscito early on. Yet they were made to betray rare insecurities as Prandelli’s men kept their shape well under pressure, with Alessio Cerci and Dani Osvaldo going close enough to make the home crowd nervous in spurts.
Though the latest display against La Roja ultimately may not have been what Prandelli was seeking, he has readied his blueprint for the upcoming tournament in Brazil. There is now a depth in character and talent unlike his formative days in charge.
The current selection boasts a healthy dose of new faces to augment the established core of the group as Prandelli consolidates tactics and playing staff. Amongst them is Cerci, and joining him on Wednesday were substitutes Mattia Destro and Mattia De Sciglio. Thirteen-goal Ciro Immobile also enjoyed a productive outing for the senior Nazionale, but his debut was well eclipsed by Gabriel Paletta after the Buenos Aires native nullified the goal threat of Diego Costa and more - providing a timely reminder of the continued relevance of Oriundi to shore up Italy’s cause.
“These are young lads trying to emerge from the Under-21 side and they deserved this call-up. It was right to give them this experience. Paletta had a wonderful debut and at times Cerci also did well,” Prandelli credited afterwards.
All proved key to raising their country’s game, particularly in the second period. Indeed, his men have already shown they do not need to be favourites to have their say. Latest incarnations affirm Italy to be stubborn and solid as needed. While final victory was only as Spain deserved this time, the encounter was an uplifting gauge of where their spirit lies.
Whereas once scraping through the group stages of the World Cup may have sufficed as a milestone, now Italy will once more be keen to cement their credentials for football’s greatest prize from the outset against England. Along the way, there would be little surprise if another challenge from old enemy Spain arises again. Then, the Azzurri will be ready.