Italy and Spain opened UEFA Euro 2012 Group C play with a high-quality 1-1 draw in Gdansk. The last two World Cup champions delivered on what portended to be a tactically fascinating encounter.
Cesare Prandelli came out with a 3-5-2 formation for the Azzurri. Daniele De Rossi dropped into the centre-back role and Emanuele Giaccherini started wide left in the five-man midfield, making his first appearance with the national team. Spain's starting XI was absent a true striker for the first time in their European Championship history.
The man of match, Andrea Pirlo, was behind almost every sublime ball dropped into Spain's defensive third. In the first half, Pirlo masterfully stroked balls out to Italy's wings and up to the dynamic Antonio Cassano. He rarely needed more than a second on the ball to pick out a spot and loft it forward.
Pirlo's passes were ideally designed to lead a teammate into available patches of green space. In contrast to Xavi, Spain's midfield workhorse, Pirlo opted for immediate, devastating exploitations of a defense. He rarely looked for anything but forward opportunities.
Not surprisingly, he was central to the Italian goal in the 61st minute. Pirlo juked, then burst away from Sergio Busquets just inside the halfway line before slotting a perfectly weighted left-footed pass into the path of Antonio Di Natale. Udinese's 23-goal man made no mistake, opening up his body to beat Iker Casillas over his waving left arm inside the far post.
It was thought that Spain would comfortably tiki-taka their way to goals against an improvised defensive lineup from Prandelli. But with Thiago Motta and Claudio Marchisio's defensive efforts in the midfield and De Rossi's as the libero, Spain were far from their lethal 2008 and 2010 heights for most of the match.
De Rossi was near perfect with his interventions, only undone by David Silva's killer assist on Spain's equalizer only three minutes after Di Natale's strike. Cassano was the Azzurri's early spark, holding the ball up, moving well and firing on the Spanish target in the opening 45 minutes.
Di Natale, of course, was clinical in the finish and almost able to capitalize on a feed from Sebastian Giovinco, another second-half substitute, to get a second goal.
In the end, this was a deserved draw. Prandelli deserves plenty of the credit for his tactical brilliance and substitutions; you could argue that half the point was earned from the touchline alone.