I wasn’t going to discuss the Spain vs. Italy match up because, to be honest, I didn’t see a story in it like Russia and Turkey. Italy wins enough and Spain, well, how many underachieving stories can one spin?
Yesterday, it was a matchup of two great Latin soccer sides butting heads. One (Spain) was running on all cylinders, the other (Italy) sputtered along trying to find its legs.
However, given this was Spain’s first victory over Italy in 88 years (I’m sure Red Sox and Cubs nation can relate) it does merit some consideration from a Spanish perspective.
Much has been made about Spain’s mental capacity to claw out a victory against big sides. Certainly history was not on Spain’s side as they made a national habit of choking when it mattered most.
The only way Spain was going to exorcise the demons that lurked within is by confronting and defeating national sides that usually gave them trouble.
The Italians are like an Anaconda on the pitch when they need to be. Teams need to fight through this reality. It’s all about life’s learning curve. As Luis Aragones said after Spain’s 1-0 victory in a friendly a couple of months back, “you need to be perfect to beat Italy.”
Yesterday, Spain was typically looking to push forward but was frustrated by an Italian defence that anticipated well and marked tightly. For its part, the Italian offense struggled and clearly needed the creativity of Andrea Pirlo. To his credit, Coach Roberto Donadoni did not play for the tie as he brought in three offensive players in Antonio di Natale, Alessandro del Piero and Mauro Camoranesi in hope of jolting the attack. It didn’t work.
Given the war of attrition that had set in by the extra time frame, the question became:
Who would blink first?
Patterns of history suggested Spain would. However, past performances are just that: the past. After all, this was a new collection of Spaniards: young, athletic and talented.
As they game wore on, it was clear that Spain weren’t going to crack. Sergio Ramos and Carles Puyol were solid on the defensive side, Senna was a machine in the middle and world class keeper Iker Casillas made the key saves when called upon.
In the end, Spain did what they had to do to win. In sports, you can’t always win looking good and pretty. You have to scratch and claw for every inch and this is the greatest lesson Spain learned yesterday.
To put it in hockey terms, you have to lose some teeth and get cut up to win the Stanley Cup. It’s as simple as that.
Spain is now battle-tested and is now possibly quite ready to win Euro 2008 and perhaps even that elusive World Cup one day.
However, there’s still the matter of Russia to deal with first. Spain throttled Russia 4-1 in the opening game in Group D but that’s hardly a harbinger of things to come. Spain can expect the game to be open but the backline will nonetheless have to be aware of Russia’s offensive ability to play in tight spaces.
Notes: I was impressed by the sportsmanship exhibited in the game. As mentioned, this was Spain’s first win over Italy in a major tournament in 88 years. The Netherlands ended a 30-year drought against the Azzurri with a 3-0 win. Italy for its part defeated France in regulation time for the first time since 1978. Streaks are meant to end, eh?