Tournament favorite and reigning World Champions, Spain, opened their Euro 2012 campaign against Italy in a highly anticipated match at the PGE arena in Gdansk, Poland.
Some eyebrows were raised over Spain′s decision to not select a traditional striker in their lineup, playing in a formation very similar to that of prestigious club side Barcelona. With five of their starting players also plying their trade for Barcelona, Spain looked comfortable early on in the unorthodox formation and controlled the tempo of the game well.
Italy′s formation was also under scrutiny, with Italian manager Cesare Prandelli opting to use midfielder Daniele De Rossi in the rarely used sweeper position. The decision seemed to pay off early in the game as, despite Spain′s domination of possession, the Italian defense held strong against several Spanish attacks.
The first real chance of the game fell to the Italians when Antonio Cassano timed his run perfectly to collect the ball and advance into the Spanish penalty area. Although his low shot beat the diving Iker Casillas, it also drifted just wide of the post. Spain hit back with a chance of their own. After their corner was cleared by the Italian defense, the ball fell to Andres Iniesta outside of the penalty area and the midfielder hit a fierce shot towards the bottom corner of the goal, forcing Gianluigi Buffon into a good save.
As the first half went on, Italy seemed to grow into the game, threatening the Spanish goal on several occasions. Most notable was a stinging volley from Claudio Marchisio that Casillas did well to hold on to. Spain, meanwhile, seemed unable to break down the Italian defense with their Barcelona-esque style of play. The presence of Barcelona players Iniesta, Xavi and Cesc Fabregas in the midfield was seemingly not enough to make up for the lack of a player of the caliber of Lionel Messi.
Spanish manager Vincente del Bosque would not have been pleased with the performance from his side at the half, with the Spaniards lucky to still be drawing 0-0 after Emanuele Giacherinni found Thiago Motta unmarked just eight yards out with a cross. His header was fired straight at Casillas and was not a problem for the Spanish goalkeeper.
Surprisingly, Spain did not bring on any of the three strikers on their bench during the interval, but the World Champions looked more threatening after the break with Fabreas testing Buffon early on. Minutes later, Iniesta seemed destined to score after breaking into the box, only for Buffon to get his fingertips to the ball and tip it wide for a corner.
With the game approaching the hour mark, controversial striker Mario Balotelli had the best opportunity to break the deadlock in the game thus far. Beating Sergio Ramos and progressing into the area unchallenged, he inexplicably held on to the ball for too long and allowed the recovering Ramos to get back and steal the ball from the Italian.
The lead was finally taken by Italy in the minute 60. Andrea Pirlo played a superb through ball for Antonio Di Natale, who was left one on one with Casillas and expertly curled his shot around the outstretched hands of the Spanish number one.
Clearly spurred on by the Italian goal, Spain struck back immediately, leveling the scores just two minutes later. Fabreas picked up a neat pass into the box from David Silva and smashed the ball beyond the reaches of Buffon, ensuring an exciting final 25 minutes.
The two goals certainly livened up the game, with both Fernando Torres and Sebastian Giovinco wasting good chances to give their sides the lead in the aftermath. Ultimately, neither side could find that bit extra to give themselves the three points.
Although Spain was favored going into the match, both sides will likely be content with the draw. Their remaining games, the Republic of Ireland and Croatia will likely pose less of a challenge than their opponents today. Spain and del Bosque will have to analyze whether their decision to play without a traditional striker was the right one before the next match, whilst Prandelli and Italy will be thrilled they defied expectations in avoiding defeat to the Spanish. He will want to see more of the same from his team in training if they are to continue in this form.
Image Courtesy of Michael Steele