Spain vs. Italy Euro 2012: Ranking the Best and Worst Players in Group C Match
The defending champions' first match is over, and it certainly did not disappoint. Italy held Spain to a 1-1 draw and will even feel undone not to have left with three points.
There were a few interesting decisions from both managers that will have people talking for days.
Cesare Prandelli chose to use Daniele De Rossi in central defense, risking a loss of cover for his midfield. On the other hand, Vicente del Bosque took a few risks that were far less impressive.
Choosing not to field a striker or even a forward, Spain lined up with six midfielders. Xavi, Andres Iniesta, David Silva and Cesc Fabregas all took turns playing as a center forward.
In the end, the attack was handicapped by this decision, and Spain were fortunate that Emanuele Giaccherini let loose Fabregas for the equalizer.
The defensive selections also proved ineffective for Spain. Not one of La Roja's back four played well against Italy.
Some players overcame these managerial decisions and even excelled in new positions. Others did not adjust as well and were left irrelevant in the opener.
What follows are my selections for the five best and five worst players in Group C's opener. After reading, feel free to comment below.
Honorable Mention (Best): Gianluigi Buffon
Buffon was nearly flawless against the reigning champions. He proved that he has in no way lost a step and is still one of the very best keepers in football.
He did well to stop a great effort from Cesc Fabregas in the first half and then deflected an Andres Iniesta shot that just may have gone in if not for a slight deflection from the Italian skipper.
1. Andrea Pirlo
Just like Buffon, apparently Andrea Pirlo failed to get the memo that he is "past it." Seriously, if I have to hear one more person say this guy no longer has it, I might just scream.
Pirlo was the best player on the pitch in the middle third of this match. He had the assist on Italy's lone goal and was the engine behind Italy's bold, attacking play.
He made a few bad passes in the first 10 minutes, but then starting dropping the ball on a dime from any distance he wanted to. His passing accuracy through the air is simply unrivaled.
That beautiful pass to Antonio Di Natale will be his most important contribution, but Pirlo provided highlight-reel worthy passes all night.
Most players would rightly feel outmatched and overpowered by an overloaded Spanish midfield. Andrea Pirlo felt right at home.
Italy will leave this match with renowned confidence, in large part thanks to Pirlo. "L'architetto" showed that Italy's midfield can go toe-to-toe with the best in the world and even outplay them.
2. Andres Iniesta
Iniesta was nothing less than Spain's best and most important player.
The close control of "El Ilusionista" is amongst the best in football, and he proved it again by repeatedly waltzing through arguably the best defense in the tournament. He creates so much space out of nothing that he has defenders spinning in circles to keep up.
Iniesta was constantly in the middle of any Spanish attack and kept putting his teammates in great position to score. He was undoubtedly Spain's most dangerous player on and off the ball.
He tracked back and was nearly unmarkable for much of the match, and he kept shifting positions all over the pitch.
The magician took turns playing as a center forward, shifted out as a winger and moved in and out of the central midfield role.
Not having a center forward really limited the scoring chances, but Iniesta did his part. He even had a great chance to score in the second half, but sent his effort over the bar.
Against Italy, Iniesta again proved that Spain's chances at history depend on him as much as anyone.
3. Daniele De Rossi
De Rossi was simply immense against the champions. Being utilized as a center back from the outset, it was clear that Italy's counter against any Spanish attack would depend largely on De Rossi.
There were concerns not only about his abilities on a three-man defense, but also about the loss of cover for Pirlo with De Rossi dropped back. Those concerns now seem foolish.
Xavi was threading balls in to the box all day, but Italy's defense was nearly perfect in cutting those passes off. More often than not, it was De Rossi sliding on the ground to end any scoring threat.
His tackling was just incredible and considering the amount of ground he had to cover, his goal-saving slide tackles were the stuff of champions.
If Italy continues to use a three-man defense, Daniele De Rossi will be the most important player for Italy.
4. Antonio Cassano
After leading scoring in qualifiers, Antonio Cassano showed that he was suffering no ill effects from heart surgery and missing six months of football.
Cassano did everything Cesare Prandelli could ask of him against Spain. Cassano was tireless, continuously split the central defense by putting himself in scoring positions and most importantly, tested Iker Casillas.
Cassano took three shots and even set up Thiago Motta with a great cross just before halftime. He was clearly the most dangerous threat to Spain.
When Antonio Di Natale came on near the hour mark and matched Cassano's effort, Italy's attack became even more potent.
What Andrea Pirlo did in the air, Xavi did on the ground. His vision and control of a peerless midfield were superb.
If Fernando Llorente had started—or if Daniele De Rossi was less than perfect—Xavi could have had two or three assists on the day.
While Iniesta was the best creator for Spain from more of an attacking role, it was Xavi who provided key passes from deeper up the pitch.
Xavi also took turns playing on the front line, but was more commonly found playing a deeper role and threading Italy's defense.
Xavi would spread Spain's attack out before Iniesta split Italy via the passing lanes created by his Barcelona partner.
Watching Xavi and Pirlo playing this well despite not even being at their best, should get fans excited about things to come.
Honorable Mention (Worst): David Silva
When looking at his entire performance, David Silva was wildly inconsistent.
Yes, he made a fantastic pass to Cesc Fabregas on Spain's lone goal, but that was one of the only good decisions he made all night.
His passing was rather poor, and the shots he decided to take were weak and never threatening. He continued his rather poor form of the second half of his season at Man City.
To be fair, the poor performance was not entirely Silva's fault.
His positioning was his biggest weakness and the problem that left Spain's attack so inept, but that is what happens when you play a midfielder as a striker—and not even consistently as a striker.
Silva looked uncomfortable all night and found himself too far back in the attack far too often. Almost every time there was a breakaway chance for Spain, Silva was out of position and found leaving his teammates a man down.
But again, this was a very challenging role for Silva.
1. Mario Balotelli
"Super Mario" was almost the exact opposite of Cassano. The enigmatic youngster from Manchester showed us Mr. Hyde instead of Dr. Jekyll.
Betters won out when Balotelli earned a yellow card in the first half. He was smartly subbed off in the second half after missing a glorious chance that may have seen him earn a red card out of frustration.
That missed chance will surely go down as one of the biggest misses of the tournament. Although it cannot be considered a miss since he failed to even take the shot.
When Sergio Ramos waited too long to pass the ball back to his keeper, Mario Balotelli won the ball with miles of space and no one in front of him. He ended up just feet away from Casillas with Ramos far behind and Cassano in space.
Instead of passing the ball to Cassano who had the angle on Casillas, Balotelli opted to score himself. The problem is that he failed to shoot.
Whether it was indecisiveness, lack of confidence, or simple impotence; Balotelli failed to capitalize on Italy's best chance of the match.
He made his own case for starting on the bench next match. Antonio Di Natale's better finishing and harder work rate will not help Balotelli's case either.
2. Sergio Busquets
With Spain not fielding a striker and Italy overloading the midfield, Sergio Busquets was to be one of the most important players for Spain.
As the pivot, Busquets would sit just in front of defense and keep the central defensive triangle tight while dictating pace from the back of Spain's midfield.
Needless to say, he failed. Busquets was completely uncharacteristic from the man we saw at Barcelona all season.
His passing was extremely sloppy and lost possession far too often. He had trouble marking Cassano and especially Claudio Marchisio.
Busquets will need to do better going forward if he is going to take pressure off his central defenders.
3. Sergio Ramos
Sergio Ramos should call Mario Balotelli and thank him. If not for the Balotelli's ineptitude, Ramos would have been the target of attacks from Spanish fans.
It was Ramos who lost the ball to Balotelli on the aforementioned scoring chance. He hesitated to clear the ball, and when he finally tried sending the ball back to Casillas, his pass hit Balotelli.
Credit to the Real Madrid starter for catching up to Balotelli and making the goal-saving tackle, but he was lucky not to have put his team behind with that mistake.
For most of the match, Ramos was poor in tackling, weak and inaccurate with his passing and wholly awkward playing alongside Gerard Pique.
Seeing how poor both Ramos, Pique, and Alvaro Arbeloa were, must have del Bosque considering other options.
It may already be time to try Javi Martinez or Raul Albiol in the middle while putting Sergio Ramos back out right. That would add a new attacking dynamic and put a more physical threat down the right side and may improve the central defense.
4. Gerard Pique
Quite simply, the central defense must do better or Spain will not repeat as champions.
There is something wrong with this pairing. Communication is poor, positioning is awful and both Ramos and Pique look uncomfortable.
The Barcelona star had a great tackle to stop a Sebastian Giovinco pass from reaching Di Natale, but it took far too long for him to start making plays.
A bit earlier, Pique was the final man on Di Natale's opening goal, and he failed to cover the Italian properly.
The Spaniard was consistently caught too spread out, and he gave himself far too much ground to make up. Granted, Busquets and Ramos are just as responsible for this, but Pique is just as deserving of criticism.
Coming into this tournament, a tremendous amount of pressure has been placed on Pique. After losing Carles Puyol to injury, it is Pique who is most expected to step up and become the defensive leader.
So far, Pique is failing to become that leader.
With these next two group stage matches likely being the least difficult ones remaining, del Bosque should consider giving Pique a different partner to see if the problem is the pairing rather the individuals themselves.
5. Alvaro Arbeloa
When three of Spain's defenders make this list, you know they struggled.
Both of Spain's fullbacks struggled against Italy, but Arbeloa was a bit worse. He did little to earn the confidence of Vicente del Bosque.
Jordi Alba was often caught too far forward and left Sergio Ramos overwhelmed, but Arbeloa did that and more.
Arbeloa was also found too far forward when he added in the attack, but those moments were far too few anyway. More often than not, Emanuele Giaccherini kept the right back quiet and pinned in his own half.
When Arbeloa did get forward, he made some clumsy tackles and failed to run with Cassano off the ball.
Arbeloa already has fans wishing Andoni Iraola was healthy enough to have earned a spot on the roster. We might be seeing Ramos or even Juanfran back out right soon.
Final Thoughts on Spain
Against the Italians, Vicente del Bosque took a big risk by not fielding a true striker, and that decision should generally be viewed as a failure.
Spain were infinitely more dangerous with Fernando Torres and Jesus Navas on the pitch even despite Torres's poor decision making.
Navas wreaked havoc almost as soon as he stepped on the pitch. He immediately added pace and width to Spain's attack and looked unstoppable at times.
Torres, for all his inadequacies, found tons of space and could have won this match if not for a bad first touch on Xavi's through ball.
I think starting both Navas and Torres on the bench was the right move. They both add speed and can take advantage of a tired defense.
The problem was not those two being on the bench, it was Fernando Llorente sitting beside them. Spain is just not very dangerous without a striker.
I know they scored a goal and created tons of chances, but creating a chance is useless if there is no one there to finish.
David Silva does not have the awareness or understanding to play as a striker, and none of Spain's midfielders have the height or strength to pose a threat. Having Llorente start would provide that aerial threat that no one fears from Spain.
My suggestion: Start Llorente in front of Iniesta, Silva and Xavi; and bring Torres on late to re-energize the attack. The crossing from Navas and distance shooting from Santi Cazorla add other dynamics.
Final Thoughts on Italy
This result should be viewed as a success for Italy.
They were the better side for much of the match and were unfortunate not to have left with three points, but there were a lot of positives to take away.
The Azzurri showed that they can match the best team in the world and are good enough to win the tournament.
In Andrea Pirlo and Claudio Marchisio, Italy holds a midfield pairing to rival almost any in Europe. They are balanced, disciplined and now, thanks to this match, confident.
But Italy should be careful to keep things in perspective and observe the many weaknesses in the squad.
Yes, they shut out Spain with just a three-man defense, but that was Spain without a striker. Once Torres came on, Italy looked very vulnerable.
Even before that substitution, Italy's midfield and defense was getting sliced open by the likes of Xavi and Iniesta. If Spain had an aerial threat like a team such as Germany, Italy may have given up three goals.
The attack was also a problem, but mostly because of Balotelli. Prandelli will now face a tough decision.
Does he risk losing Balotelli by benching the youngster in favor of Di Natale—who was clearly the better man—or does he stick with "Super Mario" to show faith and confidence in the fragile striker?
Emanuele Giaccherini may also have played his way out of the starting lineup—not entirely fair considering he has not played on the left wing in over a year.
My suggestion: Overall, feel confident and proud of this performance. But be careful not to overlook the many shortcomings or be too content with Spain's lack of goals.
Now I would like to hear from all of you.
How would you rate the players after the game? Where do you agree or disagree with my picks?
Going forward, what do you think are the title chances for Spain and Italy after seeing this match?
Feel free to comment below and voice your opinions. I look forward to discussing any differences.
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