Italy down after Spain humbling, but not out

AFP , Friday 21 Jun 2024

Italy might be reigning European champions but the Azzurri's thrilling Euro 2020 triumph seemed like it happened a lot longer than three years ago on Thursday night when they were given a brutal reality check by Spain.

Italy
Italy s Alessandro Bastoni (23) walks past Spain player after a Group B match between Spain and Italy at the Euro 2024 soccer tournament in Gelsenkirchen, Germany, Thursday, June 20, 2024. AP

Spain secured a last 16 berth and won Group B at this year's Euros with a single-goal victory in Gelsenkirchen which would have been a thumping had Gianluigi Donnarumma not been inspired in the Italy goal.

Rampant Nico Williams led the charge for Spain who forced Donnarumma into eight saves and suffocated Italy with high-tempo pressing, quickfire passing and rapid attacks down the flanks.

Williams toyed with Italy right-back Giovanni Di Lorenzo, flashing across the ball from which Riccardo Calafiori netted the decisive own goal and also smashing a late shot off the bar.

The performance of Williams and teen sensation Lamine Yamal highlighted a huge talent gap between the two sides as Italy's midfielders failed to get any sort of control until the final minutes of the game.

But even then, with Williams and Yamal substituted, Spain still managed to waste two great late opportunities to give the match a scoreline which truly reflected a one-sided contest.

"The difference was too great. We were too stretched and they created loads of problems for us," said Italy coach Luciano Spalletti, who looked disconsolate when talking to media.

"We couldn't get behind them because we weren't a team that managed to play with any sort of fluidity."

'In our hands'

It was a painful defeat which showed the scale of the job Spalletti has with Italy, a football nation which has been in the throes of an identity crisis for some time.

Once the home of the world's strongest league and a consistent producer of football greats, it has slipped down the pecking order and can no longer count on players of the calibre of Francesco Totti or Andrea Pirlo.

While neighbouring countries and fierce rivals France and Spain consistently churn out top-drawer talent, Italy are in transition and don't have anyone of the quality of Williams or Yamal, who at 16 is the same age as Italy's under-17 team which recently won their age-group's European Championship.

However, although Italy look a long way off the tournament's top performers Spain and Germany, Spalletti's outfit only need a draw against Croatia on Monday to reach the knockout stages where traditionally they are experts at grinding out results even when not playing well.

"Our destiny is still in our own hands, we can't look at this as a total disaster. We have a lot to do against Croatia, but I am convinced we can do it," Donnarumma told RAI after the match.

"The attitude was right, we worked hard –- not particularly well, but hard –- and we know that we have to do better. Our biggest mistakes came in possession as we gave the ball away far to easily.

"If you let Spain have the initiative for the entire game they'll run riot."

Anything but defeat against Croatia would set up a probable last-16 clash with Switzerland, much more welcoming opposition than red-hot Spain, with England potential opposition in the quarter-finals.

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