It says something about the outrageous quantity of quality Spain have that even late on in a match in which they had been thoroughly dominated by a famously talent-poor Italian team, it still felt like they’d somehow snatch an equalizer and at least force extra time. Instead, Italy continued pressing back the Spaniards as they had all game, and right as Spain were starting to get into the attacking groove and might’ve leveled the score, Graziano Pellè thumped in a second goal and officially killed off the reigning Euro champions:
Despite the largely misguided “Death of an Era” eulogies that accompanied what had been a historically dominant Spain team—they won Euro ‘08, the 2010 World Cup, and Euro ‘12—after the debacle in Brazil two summers ago where they failed to get out of the World Cup group stage, everyone still expected Spain to give a serious title push this time around. From top to bottom, they still have the best collection of talent anywhere in the world. Even if you could quibble with some of manager Vicente del Bosque’s selection choices and starting lineups, you’d figure that a group made up largely of studs from Barcelona and Real Madrid and Atlético would be too strong for all but maybe one or two other squads they’d run into this tournament.
On the other side of this blockbuster Round of 16 battle were Italy, whose name—it’s Italy!—far outstrips the actual talent available on their roster. This is a team with so few stars that there was seriously some thinking that the coach, Antonio Conte, might have erred in not bringing two MLS players into the fold. However, since the Euros began, Italy have greatly outperformed expectations. What they lack in raw ability they make up for in commitment, coordination, and a shared schematic vision on how they need to play to maximize their strengths and limit their vulnerabilities. Italy have looked like one of the few complete teams in the tournament.
The Italians proved again today why their tactics and understanding have been so lauded. Italy pushed very high right up against Spain, breaking up their critical build up play that allows the Spaniards to get comfortable on the ball and to work it and themselves into threatening positions. Italy hounded Spain all day, especially overrunning the Spanish midfield, and generally gummed up the center of the pitch where their opponents prefer playing through to such devastating effect that Spain found it almost impossible to get the ball forward. Though Giorgio Chiellini’s opening goal was a little on the scruffy side, it was a well-deserved reflection of Italy’s superiority:
Even more than people expecting Spain to start playing like Spain again—and it should be noted that in the group stage the Spaniards did play up to their reputation as one of the favorites to win the trophy—and get back into the game, what really made the match appear closer than it actually was were the heroics of David de Gea. He clawed out a number of Italian shots that were destined for the back of the net. Without him, Italy would’ve put this thing to bed much sooner. Eventually they did get their second goal at the beginning of second half stoppage time, and that was that. Two huge names in world soccer entered, one supremely talented and the other incredibly well-instructed, and the latter emerged victorious.
Now Italy will have to take their chances against another big favorite to win Euro 16 when they meet Germany on Saturday. The Italians will again go into that match perceived as underdogs, but with how well they’ve played so far in these Euros, they shouldn’t fear anyone.