Thursday August 11 2011
Apprentices 2 Masters 1

Scott Fleming analyses the prestigious victory over Spain which brought Cesare Prandelli's first year as Italy Coach to a close.

"Whoever said progress was a slow process wasn't talkin bout me." The chances of Cesare Prandelli quoting 50 Cent in a post-match interview are roughly 500,000 to one. Yet if the victorious Italy CT had saw fit to do so last night, no one could have grudged him it.

A year to the day since his reign began with defeat to the Ivory Coast on a drizzly night in East London, Prandelli's Italy triumphed over Spain. The tactician has transformed the Azzurri from an ageing, tired and insecure team – that couldn't beat New Zealand or Slovenia – to a young, ebullient, exciting outfit capable of defeating the world and European champions.

There are a few boring, but necessary caveats to get out the way. Yes it was only a friendly, yes, there was a little bit of luck involved, and lest we forget, Argentina pummelled Spain 4-1 last September and went on to endure Copa America misery. The significance of last night's result and performance simply cannot be understated however.

It isn't the fact that this was Italy's first win over the Spanish in 17 long years, or that revenge was gained for Euro 2008, though those things certainly made the result all the sweeter.

Ever since his appointment Prandelli has been open and unashamed about his desire to emulate Spain's style of play. Vincente Del Bosque's side represented a template, a standard for Italy to aspire to. Therefore a victory for Prandelli's apprentices against Del Bosque's masters after only a year in the job is a resounding validation of Prandelli's methods and strategy, and of all the work he has done with La Nazionale thus far.

From very early on at the Stadio San Nicola, Prandelli's charges buzzed around with a brio and self-assurance that suggested it was them and not their opponents who were top of the world rankings. We've seen Italy get results against big sides before of course, it normally involves a healthy dose of pragmatism, negating the other side's threat and snatching a goal from a set piece. This was different. The Azzurri weren't naive enough to go toe to toe with La Furia Roja, but they stuck their gloves up, absorbed what was thrown at them and counterpunched intelligently and forcefully.

The first of these counters ended with Mimmo Criscito rattling the post. The second culminated in Riccardo Montolivo's charge through the Spanish rearguard and insouciant dink over Iker Casillas. In goalscorers Montolivo and Alberto Aquilani, Italy could not have found two more unlikely heroes, not if Cristiano Doni and Beppe Signori laced up their boots. The duo have been in limbo all summer, yearning for a move away from their current clubs but hamstrung by their suitors' indifference. "Considering the moment I'm going through at club level, the Italy jersey gives me greater calm," Montolivo sighed.

All the tactical nous in the world is useless without a good atmosphere in the squad, and that's exactly what Prandelli has fostered. There's a spirit of fraternity in the Azzurri ranks, epitomised by the group decision to make home town boy Antonio Cassano captain. "In all honesty, these are natural gestures and it came to mind yesterday," said the man that surrendered the armband, Gigi Buffon. "There's mutual respect and affection between us all."

Youthful personnel, better results, better football, less predictable tactics, and smiles on the faces of the players. Not bad for a year's work. Year two begins today.

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