The attractive World Cup qualifier between Italy and Spain on Thursday night in Turin offers a rapid opportunity for La Roja to gain revenge for their 2-0 defeat at the hands of the Azzurri in this summer’s European Championships.
But that’s only just the start of it.
These two proud footballing nations have been repeated and regular combatants over the last few years, creating quite possibly the most vibrant modern rivalry in European international football.
It hasn’t, however, always been that way. After a World Cup quarter-final meeting in 1934, won 1-0 by Italy after a replay (remember those?), these two Mediterranean nations somehow didn’t meet again in a competitive fixture for nearly half a century, when they drew 0-0 in the 1980 European Championships.
The intensity of their rivalry stepped up several notches in the 1994 World Cup, when Italy won 2-1 in a quarter-final overshadowed by the sight of a young Luis Enrique’s nose streaming with blood after a vicious elbowing from Mauro Tassotti.
But Spain had still never beaten Italy in a competitive fixture (barring the Olympics) until 2008, when a nervy penalty shoot-out victory sent them on the way to the European title.
La Roja’s new-found dominance continued in the final four years later with perhaps their finest ever performance, when Vicente Del Bosque’s men swept to an imperious 4-0 victory and complete their ‘three-peat’ of major titles.
In hindsight, it’s easy to pinpoint that game as the end of Spain’s era of dominance. Just as notably, it was also the end of the road for a hugely influential playing system – the false nine, which had been implemented at Barcelona by Pep Guardiola and replicated by Del Bosque on the international stage, with Cesc Fabregas filling the role occupied by Lionel Messi at club level.
Fabregas started the 2012 final in Kiev as the ‘striker’ alongside Andres Iniesta and David Silva in a forward line which was really an extension of the midfield, allowing Sergio Busquets, Xavi Hernandez and Xabi Alonso to establish a stranglehold over possession which simply suffocated the opposition.
The following season, however, Messi’s success in that role started to diminish, illustrated most brutally when Bayern Munich dumped Barcelona out of the Champions League semi-final with an astonishing 7-0 defeat.
The ‘false nine’ was retreating into the history books and Del Bosque soon abandoned the striker-less formation, but La Roja have still not recovered from their post-Euro 2012 dip.
With the peak of their glory years coming against Italy four years ago, it was appropriate that the depth of their slump was also against the Azzurri this summer, when it finally became clear that Del Bosque’s time in charge had run its course against a vastly superior Italian team.
And it’s equally fitting that tonight new manager Julen Lopetegui will have the chance to firmly assert his new team’s credentials. Spain have lost considerable prestige since that glorious evening in Kiev four years ago. There would be no better opposition against whom to regain it than Italy.
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