Italy are heading to the play-offs for the 2018 World Cup after a 3-0 defeat to Spain in Madrid, sealed by Isco’s brace and Alvaro Morata.
Giampiero Ventura took huge risks with the formation and tactics, but they didn’t pay off in the worst performance of his tenure.
These sides were locked together at the top of World Cup qualifying Group G, but the Spaniards had the upper hand on goal difference, so an Azzurri victory was the only real option to avoid a runner-up spot and play-offs. Giorgio Chiellini was injured and Roberto Gagliardini suspended, so Giampiero Ventura went for an audacious 4-2-4 formation, while Spain dropped Morata in favour of a False 9 approach.
Italy have not beaten Spain on their own turf since 1949 and the Furia Roja were unbeaten in home World Cup qualifiers. Italy hadn’t lost any of their last 56 qualifiers between World Cup and European Championship, stretching back to France in 2006.
Marco Verratti was booked within four minutes for a sliding tackle on Sergio Busquets and Sergio Ramos curled a free kick over the bar.
Marco Asensio was tripped by Leonardo Bonucci for another yellow when running on to a through ball and this time Isco curled the free kick in and over the wall at the near post to put Spain in front. It wasn’t quite in the corner, so Gigi Buffon’s positioning was an issue on his record 170th cap.
Andrea Belotti got his twisting header to a Matteo Darmian cross, but David De Gea flew with cat-like reflexes to parry. Moments later, Sergio Ramos got a glancing deflection on a free kick to stop Daniele De Rossi’s free header.
Gerard Pique also nodded over from six yards, while Ramos needed an overhead kick clearance to stop Belotti turning in. Il Gallo had a good chance wiped out when he was incorrectly flagged offside, but David Silva’s first touch let him down as he tried to go clear on an Andres Iniesta through ball and Dani Carvajal’s angled drive took a deflection.
Isco doubled Spain’s lead just before half-time, cutting in past Verratti to place a snooker shot into the near bottom corner beyond Buffon’s fingertips.
After the restart Candreva intelligently pulled back on the counter for Insigne, whose shot was straight at De Gea, while Belotti nodded a corner over.
Asensio drilled wide from a huge distance and Buffon parried from Dani Carvajal after Isco nutmegged Verratti. Ventura did not change his shape, but Spain did, introducing Alvaro Morata for the final 20 minutes.
Isco ran rings around Verratti again to set up Morata, but Andrea Barzagli calmly held off his former Juventus teammate.
Barzagli didn’t get there in time moments later, as Ramos rolled across from the right for Morata to tap in at the back post.
Morata thought he'd added a fourth in the final minutes, but was offside for his header. David Villa even got a run-out on his comeback after moving to MLS and Manolo Gabbiadini tested De Gea from close range in stoppages.
Spain 3-0 Italy
Isco 13, 40 (S), Morata 77 (S)
Spain: De Gea; Carvajal, Ramos, Pique, Jordi Alba; Busquets, Koke; Silva, Iniesta (Morata 71), Asensio (Saul Niguez 78); Isco (Villa 89)
Italy: Buffon; Darmian, Barzagli, Bonucci, Spinazzola; De Rossi, Verratti; Candreva (Bernardeschi 69), Belotti (Eder 69), Immobile (Gabbiadini 78), Insigne
Ref: Kuipers (NED)