Defending World Champions Spain faced Italy in the semifinal of the Confederations Cup in Rio de Janeiro, hoping to book a spot in the final. The two sides faced each other in the final of the European Championships a year ago in a match that Spain won 4-0, but this time, the match was a lot more tight, and Italy’s strategy worked a lot better than it did a year ago. But in the end, it wasn’t enough to stop Spain.
Spain made a few changes to their starting line up as Fernando Torres replaced Soldado and David Silva took the place of the injured Cesc Fabregas. The formation 4-3-3 was formed by Casillas, Arbeloa, Pique, Ramos, Alba, Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta, Pedro, Silva and Fernando Torres. Italy’s starting eleven was formed by Buffon, Barzagli, Bonucci, Chiellini, Maggio, Pirlo, De Rossi, Giaccherini, Candreva, Marchisio and Gilardino, as Mario Balotelli’s injury prevented him from taking part in the remainder of the tournament. The formation changed a lot during the game and could be described as a 3-5-1-1 in which the wide midfielders not only created width but also dropped back to effectively support the defense.
The first half’s possession was dominated by Spain - as expected - but it was Italy who created the most dangerous chances to score. The strength of their wings caused Spain a lot of trouble early on, and with Spain’s pressing game not being aggressive enough, Italy was able to make quick transitions and exploit the wings, especially from Jordi Alba’s side. Italy managed to play the ball in the middle behind Xavi and Iniesta, which left Sergio Busquets with two men to mark. This situation forced Alba to cut inside too often, which left a huge space for Italy’s Maggio to exploit.
Italy ended the first half with 9 shots, compared to Spain’s 2, and was clearly the better side of the first half. The Italians constantly managed to out-number Spain’s wings and got the ball in the box with dangerous crosses; it was only poor finishing that stopped them from taking the lead.
The second half started with Italy brining on Montolivo for Barzagli, which saw De Rossi move to central defense. The plot of the game remained the same; Spain continued to control most of the possession but failed to get into clear scoring opportunities. However, Pedro Rodriquez’s defensive effort increased noticeably and later, Jesus Navas was brought on for David Silva, which helped Spain deal with Italy’s quick transitions through the wings and also added the much needed width to Spain’s game.
The second half saw Spain get into the attacking third a bit better, and Italy’s physically demanding style of play started to take its toll on the players whose increasing exhaustion prevented them from using the smart pressing game as effectively as during the first half. This made Spain more aware of Italy’s strength on the wings saw Italy’s counterattacks lose sharpness. However, Italy managed to get a good share of possession and even forced Spain to defend deep in their own half; by the end of the 90 minutes Spain only had about 52% of possession.
Normal time ended in a 0-0 draw and Spain started the extra-time by bringing in Javi Martinez for Fernando Torres. Oddly enough, the defensive midfielder was used in a very attacking role, almost playing as a striker. Italy started to look increasingly tired and Spain managed to exploit the wings better through Jesus Navas and Jordi Alba. Spain also got close to scoring through set-pieces but lacked the finishing touch, just like Italy did early on. Extra time ended with no goals despite some good chances for Spain, and the match eventually went on penalties. Italy’s Bonucci was the only player to miss and Jesus Navas got to seal the victory for Spain.
Italy’s nearly perfect tactical approach challenged Spain in a way that hasn’t often been seen in the recent years. The statistics of the match also show that Italy managed to challenge Spain; the possession was won by Spain by 53% to Italy’s 47%, and Italy managed to get a total of 15 shots compared to Spain’s 21, the majority of which came towards the very end of the game.
Spain will face another tough test on Sunday as they face hosts Brazil in the final and will look to win the one trophy they’re still lacking. Italy’s performance against Spain is surely something Brazil will look to learn from and should have the attacking power to shake the defending World Champions off balance. Spain’s semifinal showed that the side is far from invincible, but also showed - once again - how strong the team is mentally when it comes to the decisive moments. Sunday’s final could thereby be described as the battle between Spain’s winning routine and Brazil’s hungry and passionate youth.
Written by Jen Evelyn