The question everyone in football has been trying to answer in recent seasons becomes Cesare Prandelli's and the Italian national team's to take on this Wednesday. It is a question they may also have to ask again in little under a year's time during Euro 2012, and if they are on target for an improved 2014 World Cup, inevitably the question will rise once more. How do you beat the Spanish?
Prandelli has but a handful of training sessions with players still otherwise in the midst of pre-season preparation to initially answer that question midweek in Bari. With that in mind, and whilst it is also a game open to faint criticism regardless of the result – classified as 'just' an international friendly – it remains a significant marker for Italy to finish a year under Prandelli.
Indeed, 12 months on from marking his debut with a 1-0 defeat to Ivory Coast in August 2010, it is with some irony that Italy plays host to Spain. It has been Spain's growing success in developing their footballing youth – that peaked at South Africa 2010 just as Italy fell – that prompted the FIGC to re-evaluate the Italians' own education policy. Spain currently hold the World and European titles, and the Under-21 and Under-19 titles, reflective not only of their dominant style of play, but the way in which it is being bred through the age groups.
Whilst at the high end of Italy's re-strategy, Prandelli's reign has been linked to the feeling of an Azzurri clean slate, reflecting the Italian FA's new, Spanish FA-inspired core focus on youth development, by actively involving several new – and some younger – players in first-team affairs this past year. Mario Balotelli, Emiliano Viviano, Salvatore Sirigu, Sebastian Giovinco, Andrea Ranocchia, Davide Astori, Luca Antonelli and Lorenzo De Silvestri are but some to have debuted under the CT, with 23-year-old Angelo Ogbonna expected to join that list this week too.
Strategy aside, the game carries an element of pride at stake, most notably in terms of La Nazionale's recent run of results against the Spanish. Italy have not beaten Spain since a 2-1 quarter-final win in the 1994 World Cup. Added to this winless streak is the fact that since Dino and Roberto Baggio's goals knocked out Javier Clemente's side in Massachusetts, only three other teams currently occupying the top 10 positions in FIFA's World Rankings have also failed to beat La Furia Roja. One of those is Croatia, whilst Spain has only played Brazil once in this period, and Uruguay twice.
Looking at the top 20 nations ranked in the world, Spain has only inflicted as many defeats on Russia – four – in the last 17 years as they have on Italy. Whilst the world champions have a hold on almost all they have faced in recent years – losing just four times in their last 66 games – they have a particular comfort when playing the Azzurri.
Beyond the opposition this week, there are other focuses to the game, specifically for the players given the chance to consolidate their involvement under Prandelli. There is September's qualification double-header on the horizon, two games that six points from would seal a place at Poland-Ukraine 2012.
Whilst it may just be a friendly, it is one that carries meaning for Italy and their Coach, as they close the first term of a four-year project against the team they are targeting to catch, match and ultimately beat. Whilst the result may bear little weight towards that long-term goal, a win would still end a barren spell against their opponents, and give hope to Italy that there is an answer to the question, how do you beat the Spanish?