Masterclass by Italy signals end of Spain's reign
Italy 2-0 Spain
Published 28/06/2016 | 02:30
The great age of Spain did not end in Paris last night. It ended two years ago in Brazil, but perhaps we only realised it now.
Andres Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas, Sergio Ramos, Gerard Pique, Sergio Busquets, David Silva: these are names that no longer hold any fear, at least in the international game.
Once they ruled the world, but for the second consecutive tournament they were swept aside by teams who looked sharper, smarter, somehow newer.
Here Antonio Conte's magnificent Italy side looked like the future. Spain looked like the past: a gilded and garlanded past, but a past all the same.
Four years ago, Spain demolished Italy 4-0 in one of the most ruthlessly one-sided finals of the modern age. It was the high watermark of one of the all-time great international teams, but time has both spread and ossified the Spanish school of passing football.
The same conventional style, the same predictable moment, the same metronomic tempo.
Teams have had eight years to work it out, and Italy -certainly have. They defended ruthlessly, they attacked intelligently and they chased with passion and aggression.
Revolution, not evolution, is what Spain require now. In hindsight, the decision to keep coach Vicente del Bosque after a disastrous World Cup in Brazil increasingly looks like a blunder.
Wedded to an outdated style of play and the players who once made it work, he will surely not survive this tournament, even if he refused to be drawn on his future after this match.
Italy's quarter-final with Germany in Bordeaux on Saturday brings together the two outstanding sides of this tournament. And although Germany will again start as favourites, you can bet Conte - surely the finest manager in this tournament, and certainly the most meticulous - will have a plan for them.
Against Spain it was simple in theory but sublime in the execution: tackle hard, play the ball quickly out of defence, getting men into unpredictable positions from unpredictable angles.
Nobody exemplified this better than Emanuele Giaccherini, who was part conventional screener, part roaming winger, part auxiliary forward, a midfielder without portfolio.
At the back, goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon came into his own in the final quarter, making a clutch of important saves.
Italy's formidable back three of Leonardo Bonucci, Andrea Barzagli and Giorgio Chiellini simply devoured Alvaro Morata.
Impeccably drilled and full of energy, Italy stretched the pitch in attack and contracted it in defence, like a lung inhaling and exhaling.
It was marvellous, and in its immaculate spacing and asymmetrical perfection, there was a certain beauty to it as well.
Chelsea fans, who will witness Conte's alchemy at first hand next season, will have been watching with wet lips.
"Right from the outset I've always said that the only route forward is to try and be a club," he said. "A team that plays a league season. We can't allow ourselves to simply be a group of players. There's no point in hiding the fact that it's not the rosiest period for Italy in terms of footballing talent. So we need to be a team. And I think we are a team."
The mental approach, too, was spot on. Unnerved by Italy's physicality, their surreptitious angles and concussive challenges, Spain were drawn into a scrap that did not suit them.
Iniesta and Fabregas were sketchy and imprecise, while the back four looked strangely fey, vulnerable almost every time Italy advanced. Only the formidable David de Gea kept them in the game.
But De Gea was arguably also at fault for Italy's first goal, which began with a nothing foul from Ramos on the edge of the area.
The wall might have done a better job, but so might De Gea, who fumbled the low shot, brought down Giaccherini as he reached the rebound, and was nowhere as Giorgio Chiellini pounced on the loose ball.
Spain eventually wrestled control of the ball but were never able to wrestle control of the match, although Morata and Pique missed good chances in the second half.
Meanwhile, Italy never stopped creating. Graziano Pelle, Emanuele Giaccherini and Eder might all have widened the margin of victory.
The paucity of Spain's options was evident from their substitutions - the familiar Pedro, the 35-year-old veteran Aritz Aduriz and Lucas Vazquez, who has played only sporadically for Real Madrid this season.
None was able to influence the game, and in the first minute of injury time, Italy finally drew the curtains. With verve and purpose, they spread the ball from right to left, then left to right. Substitute Matteo Darmian played it through, and Pelle applieedd the finishing touch.
Italy's bench flooded the pitch, and in that moment one of the great teams in football history was consigned to the past.
Spain is a name that no longer holds any fear. All great sides pass into legend, but few quite so definitely as this.
"There's no tomorrow for Spain, there is for us," said Conte.
Time will tell how prophetic those words will prove.