Italy defender Giorgio Chiellini is just one of many Italians who feel that maybe the Azzurri have a point to prove when they line up against old rivals Spain in an intriguing second round clash at the Stade de France in Saint Denis, Paris tomorrow. Speaking at the Casa Azzurri training camp in Montpellier, Chiellini suggested that Italy have not forgotten their last tournament clash with Italy, a 4-0 drubbing in Warsaw four years ago. As he looks forward to this re-run of the 2012 final, Chiellini argues that, whatever else, there will not be a four goal difference between the two sides this time.
“Spain have been something of a problem for us in recent years from Vienna 2008 through to the last Euro. Yet, that final in Kiev four years ago was the only match between us that was not evenly balanced, that was a game where frankly we were exhausted and not physically up to it after the semi-final win against Germany…I think that is the way it will be next Monday, a balanced game where the smallest details matter…”
Many would agree with Chiellini recalling how when the two sides had met earlier in a opening round clash in Poznan four years ago, Italy had given Spain a fright in a closely fought 1-1 draw. Many would argue that that opening game was a much fairer reflection of the two teams’ different strengths.
Italy came into the Warsaw final with a day less of rest and above all with a number of players, such as Chiellini himself, carrying injuries. This time, lack of preparation can be no excuse for Italy since the team that lines out tomorrow will have had a ten day rest following Italy’s second round 1-0 win over Sweden in Toulouse.
That, of course, was because Italy’s opening two wins against Belgium and Sweden put them straight into the second round, in the process giving coach Antonio Conte the possibility of resting almost his entire first team against Ireland, making nine changes from the game against Sweden. Spanish coach, Vicente Del Bosque, by comparison, had no such comfort zone, fielding his strongest side in that spectacular 1-0 defeat to Croatia.
Chiellini is not alone when he says that it is a “pity” that this do or die clash has come so early in the tournament. Asked if he thought that Italy should have played to finish second in the group and therefore in the other (weaker) half of the draw, Chiellini rejected the idea, saying:
“A month ago in Coverciano, (Italian training camp) people weren’t expecting us to win our Group…so you cannot plan for these things…Despite all the negative forecasts about us, we’re still here and we can beat Spain all right, if we exploit our strengths and limit them…”
One of the typical peculiarities of this game is that Chiellini will find himself face to face with his former Juventus team mate, Alvaro Morata. Chiellini was full of praise for Morata, saying that he should be the Real Madrid and Spain centre forward for the next 10 years, adding:
“He’s a great guy and I wish him all the best, starting from after Monday night’s game however…People like to suggest that this Spain is in crisis, but I don’t see it that way. They lost to Croatia all right but they dominated the game splendidly for the first half hour…”
Asked about possible negative fall-out from Italy’s much-criticised 1-0 defeat suffered by second choice Italy against Ireland in Lille, Chiellini was dismissive of the notion, saying:
“You guys need to be balanced in your reporting. Headlines like ‘Give Us Back Our Italy’ were exaggerated. With all respect, we were already qualified, we were already top of the group and certain to go through, so we didn’t give that game much importance. Monday is an entirely different game, it is knock out football, so we have to give it everything…”
Intriguingly, coach Antonio Conte did not seem much worried by that defeat by Ireland, even immediately after the game. We all know how regularly Italy totally underperform when there is nothing at stake. Will they now be able to raise their game again to the level seen in their opening game against Belgium? Will Spain, who looked to be ticking along nicely in initial wins against the Czech Republic and Turkey, will they too be able to get back on track?
With the exception of injured attacking midfielder, Antonio Candreva, Conte will be able to call on his preferred first choice selection, with the Juventus quartet of Gigi Buffon, Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci and Chiellini resuming normal business at the back. Emmanuele Giacherini, Marco Parolo and Daniele De Rossi return in midfield with Graziano Pellè and Eder returning to the attack. Conte’s only doubts concern his wide midfielders with Alessandro Florenzi favourite to replace Candreva and with Man Utd’s Darmian likely to play in the right back/right sided midfield role.
As for Spain, when La Roja last defeated the Italians in the European competition, it had a squad that included the likes of Xavi Hernandez, Xabi Alonso and an in-form Fernando Torres. This current side can still call on the mercurial qualities of talisman Andres Iniesta as well as such as Sergio Ramos, David Silva and Cesc Fabregas, Gerard Pique, Jordi Alba and Sergio Busquets. Yet, there is the sensation that this Spain is not quite as good as it once was. Defender Jordi Alba summed up the game for the media, saying:
“We played one of the best games I can remember in that (2012) final…but it’s not going to be like that this time. They have three central defenders and two wingers who can create problems for us. It will be very difficult.”
Italy (3-5-2): Buffon; Barzagli, Bonucci, Chiellini; Florenzi, Parolo, De Rossi, Giaccherini, De Sciglio (Darmian); Eder, Pellè.
Spain (4-3-3): De Gea; Juanfran, Piqué, Sergio Ramos, Jordi Alba; Fabregas, Busquets, Iniesta; David Silva, Morata, Nolito.