Tuesday 24 October 2017

Iniesta key in bid to unpick Italian lock

Spain's Andres Iniesta. Photo: Albert Gea/Reuters
Spain's Andres Iniesta. Photo: Albert Gea/Reuters

Jack Pitt-Brooke

With the feelings of very different defeats in their third group games, Italy and Spain meet at the Stade de France today.

Italy lost to Ireland in a game that they could afford to lose - a defeat Antonio Conte almost invited by resting so many players.

In contrast, Spain went all-out to beat Croatia in their last match, took the lead, missed a penalty and then blew it at the end.

That loss condemned Spain to second place in Group C and a harder run to the final than anyone could have expected.

Their first forfeit is Italy before Germany and then probably France. So, while Italy's loss to Ireland was largely self-inflicted and fairly painless, this feels like a wounded Spain side that goes to the Stade de France.

This has been a tournament in which passing football has not flourished, or at least when it has struggled to find its way past steady defence.

That is why Croatia, the team of the group stage, fell to Portugal on Saturday night - a result that opened up their half of the draw to any side who can find the right balance.

When Italy beat Belgium in their first match with a tactical masterclass, they looked like a team who had been instilled with all the old Italian values by Conte, who is arguably the best coach at the tournament.

They do not need much of the ball because they have the best defence in Europe. They do not have much quality up front but when they can drive opponents to distraction, they have enough.

The worry for Spain is that Italy are precisely the sort of opponents that they struggle against - a team happy to let the passing carousel spin away before they make their incision.

Two years ago in Brazil this Spain team - or one very close to it - was dethroned by the direct counter-attacking of Holland and Chile. However, this Spain side has some new players, a new direct threat in the form of Alvaro Morata and Nolito.

Spain also have an Andres Iniesta who is back to his best, playing far better than he was in 2014, and a David Silva who is revelling in more influence than he has enjoyed for years.

Their defeat of Turkey, orchestrated by Iniesta and Silva, still stands out as a high point for attacking football this month, and there have not been many of those.

Everyone knows how Italy will play today, how they will defend, sit deep and wait. There are few surprises to Conte's sides - they are always true to his values.

The question is whether Spain are good enough. Is this a revived team - as they looked against Turkey - a team ready to do what they did in Euro 2008 and Euro 2012 and beat the Italians on their way to glory?

Or is it the flawed complacent side who blew their lead against Croatia, forcing them into the half of the draw they had hoped to avoid?

Vincente del Bosque seems unlikely to make major changes, with goalkeeper David de Gea, who was criticised after the Croatia loss, expected to continue.

Italy are without midfielder Antonio Candreva because of a thigh injury while 10 of their squad are only one booking away from a suspension. (© Independent News Service)

Irish Independent

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