Image: Wikimedia Commons / 3oheme
Image: Wikimedia Commons / 3oheme

Italy and Spain set for titanic semi-final clash

From the early 2000s to around 2014, both Italy and Spain both were undoubtedly among the best teams in the world, between them winning four consecutive trophies, in the 2006 and 2010 World Cups, and the 2008 and 2012 Euros.

Admittedly the great Spain team of Xavi, Iniesta and David Villa, amongst others, were behind three of these four trophies, but even during these successes, Italy, the team of Buffon, Pirlo and De Rossi, were arguably their main competitors for the crown of being the world’s best team.

As both nations were together when at the peak of their powers, their recent decline has also been remarkably similar. In the 2014 World Cup, both teams failed to get out of their respective group stages, while they even met in the last 16 of the 2016 Euros in France, with Italy winning comfortably 2-0, before being knocked out by Germany in the quarter-final.

In 2018, Italy suffered the ignominy of failing to even qualify for the World Cup in Russia, but Spain, despite qualifying, must almost have wished they’d never travelled, losing out in humiliating fashion to hosts and underdogs Russia in the last 16.

So, in a way that mirrors the similarity in their geographical position and climate, the rise and fall, and seemingly rise again, of the Spanish and Italian national teams has been enacted seemingly in tandem over the past decade, and the two nations, on their ascent to what they hope will be the peak of world football, meet again at Wembley in the semi-finals of this year’s European Championships.

Following the humiliation of their failure to even qualify for the World Cup, it is the Italian’s emergence from football’s ashes that has perhaps been the most remarkable. 2017 was their low point, as, after finishing second in their qualifying group to, believe it or not, Spain, they crashed out to Sweden over two legs, a match that marked the culmination and final defeat of the generation that had heralded so much success over the past decade.

Roberto Mancini, the leader of Italian football’s revolution, very quickly came in, and ushered the likes of Andrea Barzagli, Marco Parolo and Andrea Candreva out, all of whom, despite being top players in the past, were no longer up to the pressures of top level football.

Instead, a new generation of players, younger, and with a remarkably different style of play were introduced, and a new Italian identity with them.

Mancini has always bucked the trend when it comes to Italians in general, a flamboyant and technical number 10 in his playing days, and a man more focused on creativity than on the ‘typical’ Italian defensive toughness, and he moulded his Italy in his image.

So far this tournament, Italy have been the most exciting team to watch

So far this tournament, they have been the most exciting team to watch, creating bucket-loads of chances with a team focused on dynamic passing, with both short and medium range passing focused on progressing up the pitch with speed, while the movement of their wide-players and full-backs pulls opposition defences all over the place, once again opening up space within which their technical players can operate. Leonardo Spinazzola, a key part of this system, will be missing, but he is only one cog in an efficient machine, and Emerson Palmieri is an adequate replacement.

Their midfield is where their true strength lies, as Marco Verratti, Jorginho and Nicolo Barella are all technically proficient players and comfortable on the ball, as Verratti and Jorginho can either hold onto possession or progress the ball to the likes of Lorenzo Insigne or Ciro Immobile, while Barella is the goal threat, breaking into the box from deep, something seen in his goal against Belgium in the quarter-final.

What makes this team so good, however, is in how Mancini combines this beautiful passing play that he has introduced with a traditional Italian defence, centered on the old stalwarts Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci, backed up by Gianluigi Donnaruma, a man who possesses so many similarities to Buffon it is scary. These players simply take joy in defending, are not bad on the ball themselves, and are well versed in football’s dark arts and prepared to do anything to win, as seen in their time-wasting display in the last few minutes against Belgium.

And it is these players, and these qualities, that perhaps give them the edge over a Sergio Ramos-less Spain on Tuesday. As with most teams focused on possession (see Ajax in 2018-19), in recent games Spain have looked somewhat suspect defensively and unable to see out games, as evidenced in the last 16 against Croatia. It was a bold move of Luis Enrique to leave out Ramos, but increasingly, and with the example of Italy as a point of comparison, it is looking like the wrong one.

Ever since the humiliation of the 2018 World Cup, as with Italy, the Spanish renaissance has been a process of ‘out with the old and in with the new’. The removal of Ramos was the latest stage in a process that has seen Gerard Pique and Iniesta, amongst others, retire from the national team, with the absence of any Real Madrid players from this squad a stark reminder of the newness of this team, in contrast to the dominance of Real and Barcelona ten years ago.

The appointment of Luis Enrique is similar to that of Mancini: a manager with a defined way of playing and a successful managerial record, ready to lead the team into the new era. As with Italy, this style is possession based, although, as is the Spanish way, it is slower and more lethargic, with possession of the ball their primary mode of defence, due to the lack of any Chiellini and Bonucci figures in their back line. Alvaro Morata, their primary striker, comes deep to contribute to this possession, leaving their main attacking thrust to focus through their full-backs and wingers, with crosses into the six yard box their main threat so far this tournament.

The success and boldness of this Spain team has worked against its relative youth and lack of leader

Although they have been not quite as impressive as Italy this tournament, the success and boldness of this team has worked against its relative youth and lack of leaders, and despite their ‘slow’ style, Spain have created an abundance of chances, scoring ten goals over two games against Slovakia and Croatia.

However, in their other matches in the tournament, they have not managed above one, something that is largely the result of their profligate finishing: against Sweden, Poland and Switzerland their xG was around nine, but in reality they only scored three, and this is something they need to address if they are to have any success in this semi-final clash.

As with all of their matches, Spain will be hoping to have the majority of the ball on Tuesday, but this will be a far harder task against an Italy team also focused on possession, and this game therefore is shaping up to be a battle of the midfields.

Sergio Busquets, Pedri and Koke are a high class trio and excellent at keeping the ball, but the worry is that they will be overrun by the more dynamic Italians who, once they break through, have the ability in attack to cause a shaky pairing of Pau Torres and Aymeric Laporte serious problems.


Ultimately, it is hard to see beyond an Italian victory in London. Both team’s decline, fall and rise have been mirror images of each other, but Italy’s progression across this tournament has simply been more rapid than Spain’s. They play in a similar way, but Italy simply do it better, combining possession with dynamism, something Spain lack, and with clinical finishers up front, something which, for all his qualities, Alvaro Morata simply is not.

The key strength of this Italian side is their defence, and this is Spain’s key weakness, as neither Pau Torres or Eric Garcia are adequate partners for Aymeric Laporte, while none of these players have the winning mentality of a Chiellini or Bonucci.

Spain, unlike Italy, who knocked out favourites Belgium, have not yet faced top quality opposition so far this Euros and, when faced with this outstanding Italy, who will go on to win the tournament, they will become unstuck.

Over the last decade, the two teams have been akin to brothers in arms, and this semi-final could be the moment where the two teams, having been together for so long, finally diverge, as one returns to the upper echelons of world football, while the other’s journey, whilst still being on the same track, may just take that a little bit longer.

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