Euro 2012: 10 Keys for Italy vs. Spain
Italy, meanwhile, looked asleep at the wheel in their sole friendly, against Russia. Conceding three goals and looking generally shaky in the second half, the Azzurri find themselves with the unenviable task of taking on the European and World Champions right out of the gate.
For the Italians to succeed in their June 10th clash at the PGE Arena in Gdansk, Poland, they'll have to key on several different features to keep La Furija Roja at bay.
Whether it's manning a tight defense or keeping their attacking options in the right order, Italy has a tough, but not impossible, task at hand.
1. Move on from the Latest Match-Fixing Scandal
Rumors abounded that the Italian government thought about pulling the squad out of Euro 2012 due to the latest match-fixing scandal.
It certainly looked like the Italians were unsure as to whether or not they really wanted to be playing the Russians last week, but as they have been told to stay and play, they had better get their heads on straight.
Playing Spain is a hard enough assignment. Play Spain while not mentally into the match, and the Italians might as well be facing the toro furioso (mad bull) without the matador's cape.
2. Buffon Must Be Brilliant
After Gianluigi Buffon left at halftime against Russia, the Italian defense, which was already lacking discipline, was cut asunder by a decent offensive outfit.
Buffon might have prevented two of the three goals simply by keeping the defense in shape, which will be crucial against Spain.
Buffon will be required to make saves in the opener, and an inspired performance from the Italian captain will be a must to keep the Azzurri within touching distance of the reigning champs.
3. Who'd Be a Defender?
Already shorn of Dominico Crescito due to the match-fixing investigation, and still waiting on Giorgio Chiellini to prove his fitness, the Italy back line might be the shakiest part of the squad, a fact that would make the old masters of catenaccio roll in their graves.
Chiellini has said that he expects to be ready to start the match against Spain, but given the probable need for his experience in the later matches, it might be worth a punt to leave him out and heal all the way.
With or without Chiellini, the squad is going to have to chain the midfield to the back line and hope some counter-attacking opportunities present themselves.
4. Keep Andrea Pirlo Free
One of the great success stories of Italian football this season has been the play of Andrea Pirlo, who switched A.C. Milan red with Juventus black-and-white, and helped pace the Old Lady to a Serie A title (as far as we know.)
Juventus allowed Pirlo to sit deep and pass, and so too did most of Juve's opponents.
Spain, however, press hard and give opposing teams little time to think on the ball. The space Pirlo is accustomed to will be far harder to find.
Italy must give Pirlo protection and time on the ball when they get hold of it in order for him to weave some magic and spark what few attacks the Italians are likely to make.
5. Don't Panic!
Another feature of Spain's pressing defense is that on the rare occasions that opposing squads are able to break, the opposition often rush the play and lose the good chance that came their way.
Whether they expect a defender will be there soon or that they've had so few touches on the ball, Italy must resist the urge to push too hard.
There is a difference between moving quickly and recklessly. Italy, like many teams, will only get so many chances to score, and must capitalize when they do.
Spain has a nasty habit of holding the ball so long that beards have been known to grow on small children by the time La Roja lose it.
The possession stat will be heavily slanted in Spain's favor, as they are typically able to hold the ball for nearly 70 percent of the match.
If, however, Italy can nudge that down to, say, 65 percent, there is a better chance that the Italians will have chances to score.
Cesare Prandelli has been encouraging possession and offense in his tenure as Italy manager. Whether or not they can utilize both against Spain is another matter altogether.
7. Make the Chances Count
As mentioned earlier, teams rarely get more than four or five quality opportunities to score on the Spaniards, and the Azzurri will be no exception, more than likely.
That means when those times do come up, whether it's on the break or in open play, the forward line must be ready and accurate when they take their shots.
Spain's pressing occasionally forms holes in the midfield, and high-quality passing moves can unlock the defense.
When those moves happen, the forwards must convert.
8. One Forward or Two?
Prandelli has had great success in qualifying with the 4-4-2 diamond setup, and it might serve Italy well if the second forward is willing to track back often.
Knowing that Spain will flood the midfield, it might be wise for Prandelli to consider adding another holding midfielder at the expense of a forward.
A five-man midfield would take some of the stress off Pirlo as a defender, but would put the squad in the predicament of deciding who that one forward would be.
It's an interesting tactical decision, and one that the Italians should keep well under wraps until kickoff.
9. Don't Start Balotelli
Mario Balotelli may be the most interesting player in the tournament, but short of Joey Barton making an appearance for the England squad (not the chain gang, either), Balotelli is the most combustible man in the Poland and Ukraine area for however long Italy stay in Euro 2012.
With the minimal amount of service he is likely to see, and, in all likelihood, the amount of fan abuse the whole squad is going to take, having the Manchester City man on the field outside of the last 20 minutes would be a mistake.
As a sub, however, Balotelli could change the dynamics of the match and give the Italians extra firepower if they sense that Spain is faltering.
Then again, he could go mental, and then we'd have something to talk about, wouldn't we?
10. Embrace the 'Us Against the World' Mentality
Everybody loves an underdog, and for the most part, whoever Spain is playing is the underdog.
Unlike most teams, however, Italy will not be playing the role of crowd favorite anytime soon.
As such, the Italians need to realize that the pressure is squarely on Spain to do the job and get on with the group. No score at halftime or an Italy lead amps up the pressure on Spain.
If they're willing to accept the fact that they are the team that everyone will love to hate, they might be able to foster the kind of camaraderie needed to pull off a great upset.