Italy’s match against Spain at the beginning of September was more than just a qualifier. It was a chance for the Italians to test their new-look Azzurri against the best Europe had to offer, and it was a chance for them to assess their progress under Giampiero Ventura. Consequently, the 3-0 drubbing the Nazionale received was a kick in the teeth, a stark reminder that they have some big decisions to make come Russia in 2018.
However, while both countries share a rich and decorated history on the international stage, the pair play home to some of Europe’s finest clubs. Juventus’ Champions League tie with Barcelona was, by nature, a follow-on of the World Cup clash; two teams that represent national sporting heritage and accomplishment.
Barca however, like Juve, were a side with a point to prove. The Bianconeri’s supremacy over the Catalans last year, which consequently saw them reach the Final, was painful. Paulo Dybala’s masterclass swept the boys from Camp Nou away, but the same heights could not be reached in their rematch last night.
Barca’s summer of uncertainty could not have been any more different to Juve’s. The Bianconeri’s market saw them strengthen in depth and bring in a handful of prospects – a clear indication that they were planning for the future. However, after the Blaugrana’s dominant 3-0-victory last night, ‘juventini’ will be questioning whether they have in fact regressed rather than progressed.
A Leonardo Bonucci-less team is one thing, but the Old Lady’s inferior, subservient game after Lionel Messi slotted home the opener was wholly worrying. Barca’s hunger to ‘settle their debts’, as one Catalan newspaper reported, was overpowering, with the Turin outfit rolling over, unable to compete with the side they swept away with such ease last April.
The quest for Italian redemption stretched as far the Olimpico, with Eusebio Di Francesco and his Roma troops looking to do one better then their Turin counterparts, facing off against Diego Simeone’s dogged Atletico Madrid. Di Francesco made clear his admiration for Simeone before the game, stating that “from a mental perspective, Simeone’s done an incredible job.”
Atleti’s vastly superior Champions League experience counts for a lot, but given the talent Di Francesco had at his disposal, it promised to be a match won as much on the field as in the mind. The psychological battle in such clashes is often understated, and the former Sassuolo Coach’s exciting brand of football was a stark contrast to the very un-Spanish style that Simeone has entrenched in his side.
Ventura’s baffling tactical decision to understock the midfield against a notoriously-possession heavy Spain team did nothing to reinforce the notion that Italy remained the home of the greatest tacticians in football, yet Roma’s ability to match and nullify Atleti’s strategy gifted them a somewhat moral victory; proving to the Giallorossi that they could compete with the best.
Comparatively, the grudge match in Catalonia did not come close to the 0-0 stalemate in Rome which, in reality, suited both teams. Di Francesco’s first Champions League match was one which demonstrated his potential to mix it with Europe’s elite. Although, vitally for the Lupi, their ex-midfielder proved he had the confidence and nous to address European competition in a way that Luciano Spalletti never managed.
Italy and Spain will always be one of the most anticipated duels on the international stage, but at club level, the best the former had to offer just wasn’t enough. Teething problems for Max Allegri’s Juve meant they failed to match Barca, both on and off the pitch, with the Blaugrana’s insatiable desire to put right the wrongs of last season handing them superiority. Spanish football’s resurgence on the greatest stage of all proves that the Bianconeri and Italy may have taken one step forward and two steps back over the summer.