Italy and Spain renew rivalry in heavyweight battle

Italy and Spain are two teams that seem to have forgotten what it feels like to lose – but something must give in their semi-final showdown at Euro 2020.

Spain have shrugged off pre-tournament tension, coronavirus chaos and gruelling knockout clashes to extend an impressive run that has seen them suffer just one defeat in 29 games and go unbeaten in 13.

A transitional side are aiming for a third European Championship crown in four editions but Italy, another continental heavyweight revived under Roberto Mancini, head to Wembley having not tasted defeat for 32 fixtures, going back to September 2018.

The teams have met 10 times at major tournaments, with Italy retaining the upper hand until Spain beat them on penalties en route to their Euro 2008 triumph – before thrashing them 4-0 in the final four years later.

Italy will face Spain in the semi-finals on Tuesday
Italy beat Belgium to book a date with Spain in the semi-finals on Tuesday

A simmering rivalry had boiled over before then at the 1994 World Cup when Italy prevailed in the quarter-finals but injury was added to insult for Spain as an elbow from Mauro Tassotti – an act that later earned him an eight-match ban – left Luis Enrique bloodied.

Fresh success is now sought – the Kiev showdown of 2012 was the last time side either made it this far in the tournament – and while they have traditionally been deemed footballing opposites, Luis Enrique believes the current crops are more philosophically aligned.

“This Italy side isn’t, perhaps, like the ones of years gone by – one that would sit back and wait to see what happened,” the man whose debut as national coach brought a win at Wembley told UEFA ahead of the game.

“This is an Italy side with great players who aim to have a lot of possession. This will be the first battle in the game: who dominates possession?

“I don’t think both of us can dominate, so it’ll be interesting to see who wins this tussle. They also employ a high press, which it would be hard to imagine an Italian side from the past doing.

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The Italy squad have arrived in England for their Euro 2020 semi-final against Spain at Wembley (Pictures: ©UEFA 2021)

“And the problem is that I can see Italy showing the same attitude as us… they feel like they are a real team unit.”

Mancini defended Spain’s possession-based style of play on Monday, but is adamant his side will not change how they set up for their Euro 2020 semi-final.

“In the last 20 years they have dominated world football so I don’t think they will change their style of play now,” Mancini told a news conference. “Luis Enrique is a great coach for what he has shown.

“They have a style of play, invented by them, which has led them to extraordinary successes and they continue to do it well. Ours will be slightly different, we are Italian and we cannot suddenly become Spanish. We will try to play our game.

“We know that it won’t be that easy. We know that we need to produce a big performance because Spain are a top side.”

Italy’s revival under ‘orchestra director’ Mancini

Roberto Mancini is staying grounded ahead of the semis
Roberto Mancini has inspired a striking upturn

From the moment tenor Andrea Bocelli began his stirring rendition of Nessun Dorma at the Stadio Olimpico’s opening ceremony, it seemed there was something in the air.

Italy mourned missing out on the World Cup for the first time in 60 years in 2018 but Mancini has them motoring again.

The group stage brought three wins without a goal conceded. A vital test of mental toughness was passed against a gutsy Austria in the round of 16. The quarter-final defeat of top-ranked Belgium was a technical and tactical triumph, as well as another formidable display of character.

In 37 games under Mancini, the Azzurri have won 28, scored 90 goals and conceded just 16.

Italy players celebrate their Euro 2020 win over Austria
Italy players celebrate their hard-fought Euro 2020 win over Austria

While evergreen centre-backs Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini continue to hold the fort, the players in front of them have evolved into a high-energy unit that presses hard, attacks at pace and rotates with freedom.

Lorenzo Insigne cutting inside from the left has afforded space for Leonardo Spinazzola – one of the players of the tournament before his injury against Belgium – to attack, while Federico Chiesa has provided width on the other flank and prompted dangerous runs inside from Nicolo Barella.

Former Italy boss Arrigo Sacchi has praised Mancini for marrying style and steel.

“Italy win and entertain with a modern brand of football,” he told Gazzetta dello Sport in quotes reported by UEFA.

“All credit to Mancini, an extraordinary orchestra director. Without him, this team would never play this well. In next to no time he has managed to change our mentality.”

Coping without Spinazzola

Leonardo Spinazzola suffered a ruptured achilles during the Euro 2020 quarter-final win over Belgium
Leonardo Spinazzola had to be stretchered off against Belgium

Spinazzola’s injury – the wing-back left the field in tears having ruptured his Achilles tendon against Belgium – was the only negative from Italy’s quarter-final triumph in Munich.

The 28-year-old was enjoying a spectacular tournament, his speed and trickery providing an invaluable outlet on Italy’s left flank. Indeed, while he was ostensibly operating as a wing-back, he often looked more like an auxiliary striker, such was the attacking nature of his role.

Spinazzola had made more dribbles than any other Italy player and also ranked highly for shots and chances created, but there is no like-for-like replacement in Mancini’s squad. The more conservative Emerson is expected to deputise but Spinazzola’s absence may demand a rethink from Mancini.

Italy have been a major threat from their left flank at Euro 2020
Italy have been a major threat from their left flank at Euro 2020

His Italy side have directed a high percentage of their attacks down Spinazzola’s flank during the tournament so far but they will need to find different ways to harm Spain without him. “High pressing, pace and midfielders taking control of the game,” urged Gazzetta dello Sport ahead of the game.

The midfield battle is certainly likely to be significant. Spain have the capacity to dominate in that area of the pitch, with Sergio Busquets, Pedri and Koke a formidable unit. But for all their dominance of possession, their central midfielders are yet to score at Euro 2020.

Italy, on the other hand, appear to have far greater potency in that area. Manuel Locatelli and Matteo Pessina have both scored twice, while Barella has also found the net. Without Spinazzola, Italy will need those players to step up again at Wembley on Tuesday night.

Spain winning over critics but finishing problem remains

Luis ENrique cuts a frustrated figure during Spain's 0-0 draw with Sweden
Luis Enrique faced criticism of his squad selection

Luis Enrique’s initial squad selection prompted fierce criticism among sections of the Spanish media, with AS accusing him of betraying the nation’s most popular club by omitting Sergio Ramos.

As the tournament approached, positive coronavirus results for Sergio Busquets and Diego Llorente threatened to put their whole involvement in jeopardy.

After the final whistle in Seville, a goalless draw with Sweden drew home jeers and left players on a collision course with supporters, with Aymeric Laporte admitting: “The team leave feeling bad after all the effort we made and the chances we created.”

A further draw with Poland provoked further frustration around a team perceived to be passing too often without purpose. Radio Marca described Luis Enrique as “pigheaded”, adding Spain were “not cut out to win this Euros and we all know it”.

But a 5-0 thrashing of Slovakia was a vital morale boost and Enrique has fostered a siege mentality. When Unai Simon blundered and Alvaro Morata missed chances, Enrique’s public faith never waned.

“Luis Enrique is the architect of all this. He has shown us the way and where we need to go,” said Simon after saving two penalties in the shootout against Switzerland.

“Luis Enrique deserves credit,” Gaizka Mendieta told Sky Sports News.

“He trusted the players that most people didn’t. He’s trusted in a way of playing and has given the players the type of mentality that he had. They have shown real character in bouncing back from mistakes and challenges.”

Alvaro Morata
Alvaro Morata has faced abuse from Spain fans over his missed chances

Spain are the top scorers at Euro 2020 thanks to their five-goal hauls against Slovakia and Croatia but a lack of ruthlessness in the final third has been a reoccurring issue.

Against Switzerland in the last 16, they only scored once from 28 shots on goal. In their first two group games, against Sweden and Poland, they were similarly wasteful, scoring one goal from 29 shots across the two games and drawing both.

Their strikers, Morata and Gerard Moreno, rank first and second for big chances missed at Euro 2020 with six and five respectively and their struggles against Switzerland on Friday will have done little for their already fragile confidence.

Luis Enrique will hope their luck turns in front of goal against Italy, and that Spain find the cutting edge to complement their creativity, but Mancini’s side are unlikely to give them as many opportunities as the other opponents they have faced so far.

Before conceding against Belgium and Austria in their last two games, Italy had been on a run of 11 consecutive clean sheets.

They have limited their opponents at Euro 2020 to only seven shots per game and, with Leonardo Bonucci, Giorgio Chiellini and the rest celebrating every block and tackle like a goal, they will surely relish the challenge of keeping Spain’s misfiring forwards quiet on Tuesday night.

The pundit verdict: ‘Italy most complete outfit – but it will be tight’

June 20, 2021, Rome, United Kingdom: Rome, Italy, 20th June 2021. Jorginho of Italy during the UEFA Euro 2020 match at Stadio Olimpico, Rome. Picture credit should read: Jonathan Moscrop / Sportimage(Credit Image: © Jonathan Moscrop/CSM via ZUMA Wire) (Cal Sport Media via AP Images)
Jorginho has played a key role in Italy’s midfield

Former Arsenal and England striker Alan Smith speaking to

“I’ve been very impressed with Italy and thought they have looked the most complete outfit in the tournament, not including England.

“They had this great record of clean sheets up to the Austria game and there is also this long unbeaten run under Roberto Mancini.

“There will be a real confidence there for Italy, whose strength going forward is in the wide positions with Lorenzo Insigne, Federico Chiesa and Domenico Berardi.

“Jorginho has been brilliant for Italy. He’s got a superb understanding with Marco Verratti and Nicolo Barella and they make up a really strong trio in the middle of the park.

“It’s all positional from Jorginho in terms of his defensive work. He goes about his job with the minimum of fuss and he also moves the ball quickly, getting it forward too. That’s another strength of Italy’s.

“But Italy and Spain are two teams I would say without a top-class centre-forward.

“We have seen Alvaro Morata at Chelsea, at Atletico Madrid and Juventus on loan. So much of his game can be good but he’s just not convincing when it comes to finishing.

“With a better centre-forward Spain could be such a better team because they have got really good players elsewhere.

Pedri is left frustrated after Spain's 0-0 draw with Sweden
Pedri is left frustrated after Spain’s 0-0 draw with Sweden

“And I think that’s a similar situation that Italy have with Ciro Immobile. He’s a real trier and he scores lots of goals for Lazio, but I do think he’s a little bit short at international level. However, he is one of those players who will pop up and you just cannot ignore that.

“When Italy get going and start passing the ball like they can, like they did against Belgium, they are a tough side to keep quiet. If they get an early goal and take control it could be a very long night for Spain.

“However, Spain do pose a threat and Italy will have to have their wits about them. They have got some tremendous players and a great manager in Luis Enrique.

“I don’t think there will be too much in it. Italy are the better team but that doesn’t always come to the fore in these games over 90 minutes or 120 minutes.”

Team news

Italy: Emerson is expected to replace the injured Spinazzola at left-back.

Spain: Pablo Sarabia could miss out after suffering a thigh problem against Switzerland. Aymeric Laporte missed a training session ahead of the game but that is understood to have simply allowed for further recuperation.

Opta stats

  • Italy have only beaten Spain twice in their last 14 meetings in all competitions (D7 L5), a 2-1 friendly win in 2011 and most recently, a 2-0 victory at EURO 2016 in the round of 16, with goals from Giorgio Chiellini and Graziano Pellè.
  • This will be the seventh European Championship meeting between Italy and Spain. Indeed, for the fourth consecutive tournament the two nations are meeting in the knockout stages of the competition, with Spain progressing in 2008 and winning the 2012 final, before Italy eliminated them in 2016.
  • Italy have reached their 12th semi-final at a major tournament (EUROs/World Cup), with only Germany (20) appearing at the final four stage more often amongst all European sides. They have progressed from nine of the previous 11 semi-final ties, including each of the last four, most recently in this competition in 2012 when they eventually lost in the final to Spain (0-4).
  • Spain have reached the semi-finals of the European Championships for the third time in the last four editions of the competition (failing to do so in 2016). Indeed, they have gone on to win the competition on each of the last two occasions they have reached the final four – in 2008 and 2012.
  • After losing each of their first four matches at Wembley Stadium between 1955 and 1968, Spain have only suffered one defeat in their last five matches there (W2 D2). However, they were knocked out of the EUROs in 1996 at Wembley, losing to hosts England on penalties.
  • Lorenzo Insigne has been involved in 13 goals in his last 15 appearances for Italy in all competitions (6 goals, 7 assists), netting the decisive goal in Italy’s 2-1 win over Belgium in the quarter-final.
  • Spain pair Dani Olmo (16) and Gerard Moreno (15) have had more shots without scoring than any other players so far at EURO 2020. Moreno’s 15 shots have an expected goals (xG) tally of 3.3, with only Cristiano Ronaldo’s (4.9) and Alvaro Morata’s (4) efforts having a higher total.

Podcast: Questions for Spain, Italy’s strengths

Spain and Italy booked a semi-final date at Wembley with their wins over Switzerland and Belgium respectively on Friday night.

Kate Burlaga is joined by Sky Sports’ Peter Smith, Adam Bate, and Nick Wright to analyse those first two quarter-finals, with the panel discussing the strengths – and vulnerabilities – of Spain. They also assess what makes Italy such an effective opponent, and how Roberto Mancini might cope with Leonardo Spinazzola’s injury.

Podcast: England vs Denmark tactical analysis | Italy vs Spain preview

Peter Smith is joined by Ben Ransom, Nick Wright and Gerard Brand to preview England’s Euro 2020 semi-final with Denmark at Wembley on Wednesday.

Will Gareth Southgate go to a back three? What threats do Denmark pose on England’s watertight defence? What can England learn from October’s Nations League defeat against the Danes? And has Raheem Sterling been the overall player of the tournament so far?

Plus, we preview the other semi-final as Italy face Spain on Tuesday night at Wembley.

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