Spain v. Italy: Rating the Italian Players in Euro 2012 Group C Showdown
As critical as I have been of Cesare Prandelli over the last week, and especially over the last day or two over his decision to go with a 3-5-2 formation with Daniele De Rossi in the center of the defense, I must take my hat off to both him and the players on the field.
Their spirited 1-1 draw with defending World and European champions Spain was a well-deserved point. If you pressed me, I'd say that Italy deserved a win more than their Spanish opponents. There were some great performances made today, and some that were less than stellar.
How did the players do? Let's look deeper into their performances, as graded on your traditional A-F scale.
The image you see is exemplary of Buffon's fantastic day. In the 75th minute, with a just-introduced Fernando Torres bearing down on him after beating a terrifically botched offside trap, the Italian superkeeper came off his line and—rather than diving for the ball and risking either a red card or a simple dribble-around—stayed upright and tackled the ball away from the Spanish striker before clearing the ball out for a throw-in.
Aside from that wonderful play, he made five saves and generally organized his back line well. He had no fault in Spain's goal—his defense hung him out to dry, and any stopping of that shot would have brought back memories of his 2006 saves against Lukas Podolski and Zinedine Zidane.
I would have given him an A+, but a slight mistake in the 85th minute when he again came way off his line to confront Torres could have cost the Azzurri dearly had the out-of-form Spanish striker not skewed his chip far too high.
This could have been higher in my opinion, but his booking on the hour—for a tackle that could very well have produced a card of another color—drags it down.
Bonucci played out of the normal position he plays in Antonio Conte's 3-5-2 with Juventus, on the right flank of the three-man line rather than his normal position in the middle. He started the game brightly, tracking back to disrupt Spain's opening attack moments after the first whistle.
He continued to play very well, interrupting several passing movements and blocking several shots and crosses. He was overall solid, but not spectacular, but put himself into a somewhat dangerous situation with his yellow. With Andrea Barzagli out at least until the knockout stages, Italy is strapped for depth at the back, and Bonucci can't afford to be suspended.
Daniele De Rossi
I was vehemently opposed to De Rossi playing in the back three in this match. He has little experience in the back, especially as part of a three-man defense. I was also concerned that his absence from the midfield would remove important cover from Andrea Pirlo and leave him exposed and unable to operate under pressure.
I am man enough to say that I was wrong.
De Rossi was sparkling in the back today. He was constantly finding ways to get himself into the Spanish passing lanes and made several last-ditch tackles, tackles that would have conceded either goals or penalties had he gotten them wrong.
He didn't do much from the back in terms of keying the attack (I still think that Bonucci and his ability to play long balls from the back are better suited to that center role in a three-man defense), but he played absolutely fabulous defense. I'm settled on using him in this role again, but he should be moved back into the midfield if and when Barzagli is healthy enough to start.
Giorgio Chiellini is one of my favorite players on the Italian side, but he didn't have a particularly good game today.
He made the usual challenges, and was excellent when he had to take to the air against an undersized Spanish lineup, but it was his mistake that led to Cesc Fabregas' cracking equalizer barely three minutes after Italy had taken a well-deserved lead.
Chiellini was parked in the center of the Italian penalty box when he decided to run out and press David Silva in possession. The move vacated a huge swath of territory in the center. Fabregas beat his marker and swooped in unencumbered, leaving Buffon stranded after Silva threaded a perfect pass to Fabregas, muting the momentum the Azzurri had just claimed.
Buffon also got himself booked late on, conceding a free kick in a dangerous area after bringing Andres Iniesta down near the left-hand corner of the box. Overall it wasn't a great day for the three-time Serie A Defender of the Year.
After his horrific performance against Russia in last Friday's friendly, Maggio could have gone nowhere but up.
The switch to a 3-5-2 helped enormously. It allowed Maggio to play the wing back position that he has proven so deadly with in Walter Mazzari's Napoli side. He showed a flash early, beating several Spanish defenders and threatening to maraud down the right wing before the move was stopped by a foul.
Unfortunately, that was about as threatening as he looked much of the game. He couldn't make much of a great service by Andrea Pirlo several minutes later, and scuffed an attempt at a volleyed cross after receiving a cross-field pass from Antonio Cassano.
He did barely miss Antonio Di Natale on a through ball on the hour and made a good defensive play against Fernando Torres late on, but was booked in the 89th minute for a foul that resulted in a free kick in a dangerous spot.
Overall, it was a much better performance than his debacle against Russia, but still nothing close to special. He may get more of a chance to shine in the next two group matches, when Italy figures to control possession a lot more than they did today against the best possession team in the world.
The Juventus man was in and out of the match today. He's never been much of an orchestrator, and at times you would forget that he was on the field. However, he supplied some good moments and with a better effort at the end he could have given Italy all three points.
He found the target twice today, once in each half. The first chance was at the 36th minute when he volleyed Antonio Cassano's cross from the top of the box that forced Iker Casillas to knock the ball down before he could control it fully.
He was fairly quiet the rest of the game until the 89th minute, when he took the ball near the right sideline and slalomed through the Spanish defense, relinquishing the ball momentarily before receiving a return pass between the top of the box and the penalty spot, regaining his balance, and firing on goal.
Unfortunately the shot was straight at Casillas, who handled it quite comfortably, but a few feet to either side and Italy could have gotten a deserved late lead and almost certainly all three points.
Andrea Pirlo wasn't altogether his usual masterful self today, but against a team like Spain that controls possession, you don't expect a player like him to put in those types of games. His work in the first half was actually somewhat lacking, with a few uncharacteristically bad deliveries from early corner and free kicks.
He made up for that by tracking back well. You don't normally see him playing particularly well in defense, but he made several nice plays in his own half today, blocking passes and tackling the ball away a time or two. He also found the target in the 13th minute on a free kick from just beyond the penalty arc, with Casillas diving to his right to save.
But his grade shot up in the 61st minute, when he put up a sudden burst of speed and carried the ball up to the box before slipping a perfectly weighted through ball past Spain's defense to assist on the opening goal.
Look for Pirlo to absolutely sparkle in the remaining group games when Italy can count on playing more of Prandelli's possession game and setting up camp in the opposing half.
The Brazilian-born Italian midfielder played very well today. He had an early shot blocked and made several good passes in that were either not capitalized on or, in the case of a great 71st minute service, just dug out by Spain's defenders.
He came very close to having a shining moment on the stroke of halftime when he connected on the end of a Antonio Cassano cross for an great header that was saved well by Casillas. It was mere bad luck that he couldn't beat the Spanish keeper and put the Italians up. Had that header gotten through who knows what could have been different by the end.
All in all the PSG man justified his selection over Riccardo Montolivio, putting in a very good match against the world's top team.
Imagine the conversation between Giaccherini and Cesare Prandelli: "Son, you're going to be making your international debut against Spain in a role that you haven't played in more than a year. Now get to it!"
Despite being used as a mezz'ala—an attacking midfielder—during the club season by Antonio Conte, Prandelli asked him to play along the left wing, the position he grew up in while with Cesena.
Giaccherini is a nice story—making his international debut at age 27 after having been playing in the Lega Pro Primera Divisione (formerly Serie C) only three years ago—but he didn't make much of an impact of today's game. He was on the receiving end of a few decent passes up the left side in the first half but didn't make much of them, and his inexperience in defense showed on Fabregas' 64th-minute equalizer, when he allowed the Spaniard to get in front of him and could do nothing when Fabregas broke through the middle for the goal.
In the latter stages of the game, ESPN commentator Ian Darke noted that Federico Balzaretti was warming up on the sidelines, and whether Prandelli goes with three or four men in the back on Thursday against Croatia, I would guess that you're going to be seeing the Palermo man on the left for Italy.
Mario Balotelli was pretty awful today. In the 10th minute he had a long shot deflected for a corner, but for the most part he was finding space but not doing all that much once he got the ball. When he beat the ground when he was brought down in the box while trying to follow up a shot by Cassano, you got the feeling it was only a matter of time before something bad would happen, and low and behold he was booked three minutes later after making the last of several rash tackles.
He did provide one eye-popping moment of skill at the very end of the first half, performing what I can only call a reverse back-heel to keep the ball in play at the sideline before passing it off for a movement that eventually led to the Cassano-Motta connection at the very end of the half that just missed scoring.
Any positives he had were immediately erased by a brain cramp in the 54th minute, when he stole the ball from Sergio Ramos in the attacking third and broke clean on goal, but despite the wealth of options—he could have shot the ball at any time or passed the ball off to Antonio Cassano, who was in space at the top of the box—he merely held the ball and moved forward, allowing Ramos to recover and dispossess him from behind.
It was an inexplicable moment that saw Prandelli haul him off two minutes later, where he looked less than thrilled on the bench. Whether he was angry at himself or at Prandelli is tough to say, but considering his volatile attitude, I think his mental state for the next game is in serious question, and it may not be worth risking putting him on the field.
The only thing that would have made it better is if he had scored. Cassano was absolutely brilliant today.
He found the target with one shot—a vicious 34th-minute effort that Casillas could only parry away—but he was providing more than scoring today.
He flashed a ball across the mouth of the goal in the 23rd minute that was maybe a step too far for Balotelli, who would have had an easy tap in. His crosses to Motta and Marchisio late in the first half both resulted in shots on goal, and he also found Christian Maggio with a good ball, but he wasn't able to do anything with it.
The only thing that keeps this grade from being a full A is a cynical foul Cassano committed on Casillas in the 32nd minute that he's very, very lucky he wasn't booked for. It was as close as he came to having Bad Cassano come out, but it was totally unnecessary.
Overall he was finding a lot of space and—unlike Balotelli—was using it well, menacing Spain's back four consistently until being taken off in the 64th minute. Expect Cassano to continue to play very well, but also expect for him to come off after 60-70 minutes—he's still not recovered from his heart operation to play a full 90 on a regular basis.
Antonio Di Natale
Since taking my position with B/R a few months ago I have repeatedly advocated for Antonio Di Natale's inclusion in the national team.
This is why.
Di Natale came on as a sub in the 56th minute, replacing Balotelli. It took him five minutes to get his first touch, but what a touch it was. Latching on to a fabulous through ball by Pirlo, Toto cut inside and unleashed a gorgeous shot over Casillas' left shoulder and into the net, his first goal on his first touch in his first game since his last appearance for the Azzurri nearly two years ago.
Di Natale has now scored in his last two international matches, having scored Italy's first against Slovakia at the tail end of Italy's World Cup humiliation in South Africa.
He could have made things even better in the 77th minute, when a good ball in from Sebastian Giovinco put him in for a potential second. Unfortunately the ball was slightly too long, and it was all Di Natale could do to reach it at full stretch, where he put it well wide.
Considering Balotelli's puzzling match today, he may very well have played himself into the starting XI on Thursday, although I'm not entirely sure he'd be able to finish 90 minutes either considering the injuries he had to play through for Udinese at the end of the Serie A season.
Whether he starts or becomes Prandelli's designated supersub in the mold of Alessandro Del Piero's role in 2006, he is going to be pivotal for the Italians as they move forward in this competition.
Apart from his pretty ball into the box that went just a touch too far for Di Natale, Giovinco didn't do much after coming on for Cassano in the aftermath of Spain's equalizer in the 64th minute. He attracted some attention from the Spanish defense, at one point being surrounded by three men in red as be brought the ball up the left flank, but he didn't really do all that much with the ball.
In fact, apart from his near-assist to Di Natale the most memorable moment for him was when he attempted to dribble the ball clear of his own box and was dispossessed in a dangerous area of the field. Luckily, Spain was unable to score off of the opportunity, but if they had, it would have certainly been a real howler.
He'll get more opportunities for sure, and with his potential transfer value in the balance, he will likely make sure he does better than he did in this match.
Brought on for Thiago Motta in the 89th minute, giving Nocernio any kind of grade would be highly unfair. He had only four minutes of time on the field, and came on as a late-game time-waster to preserve the draw more than anything else.