Italy defender Chiellini ready to face nemesis Spain

AP , Friday 24 Jun 2016

Italy's defender Giorgio Chiellini (L) attends a training session at their training ground in Montpellier on June 23, 2016 during the Euro 2016 football tournament. (AFP)

Giorgio Chiellini will be facing a familiar foe when his Italy side lines up against Spain in the last 16 of the European Championship on Monday.

Italy was humiliated 4-0 by Spain in the Euro 2012 final in Kiev, Ukraine, having lost on penalties to La Roja in the quarterfinals four years previously in Vienna. It also lost in a shootout in the semifinals of the 2013 Confederations Cup.

''Spain has been our nemesis since 2008,'' Chiellini said on Friday. ''I think Kiev was the first game in which we weren't on their level, we weren't ready. The whole team hadn't recovered from the (semifinal) match against Germany.

''Other games it was the classic Italy against Spain - level matches which unfortunately we lost on penalties, where we didn't deserve to lose. In Vienna, it was a very even game with very few occasions for either side and I think that is how it will be on Monday. It will be a nice match, a balanced match, we respect each other, we're two different football schools. It's a shame it's a last-16 match.''

Little was expected of Italy as it headed into Euro 2016 with an aging team that had been written off by critics and described as one of the worst ever by the media back home.

However, it opened with a 2-0 victory over Belgium - one of the favorites for the tournament - and then went on to secure top spot in Group E with a game to spare by beating Sweden 1-0.

That ensured it had the luxury of resting several players for its final match, a 1-0 defeat to Ireland, before taking on Spain at the Stade de France.

''Our strength is our humility,'' Chiellini said. ''That's what helped us beat Belgium and Sweden. We have been a bit the surprise of these Euros, no one expected it.

''Now we're playing the champions of Europe ... On paper they are unbeatable. But I'm convinced that if we all play as we can, with all our qualities, giving our all, we can still achieve something important in this competition.''

Chiellini is a stalwart in an Italy defense that kept Belgium's much-vaunted attack quiet and also shut out Zlatan Ibrahimovic's Sweden.

The spine of that defense has been playing together for years at both club and country level, with Chiellini, Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci and veteran goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon all teammates at Juventus.

''Our defense is obviously a point of strength of this squad, we've been playing together for so many years,'' Chiellini said. ''We try to give the security to our teammates around us, most of whom are younger. We have two jobs: to do our job on the pitch and help build up the self-esteem.''

Spain striker Alvaro Morata, who scored three goals in the group stage, spent the past two years at Juventus before Real Madrid exercised its option to buy him back this week.

''Alvaro has incredible skills and paradoxically still has a lot of margin to improve,'' Chiellini said. ''He's grown a lot in the past two years ... I hope he's not going to do well on Monday, but I wish him the best in the future.''

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