It was by no means easy, but Spain showed their steel to finally overcome Italy and booked their place against Brazil in the Confederations Cup final. Leonardo Bonucci was the villain for the Azzurri, blasting his penalty into the stratosphere and allowing the World and European champions to win 6-5 in the shootout.
Spain therefore advance into a remarkable fifth straight final. This record stretches back to the European Championships of 2008, with every title going to the Furia Roja as they have dominated international football over the past five years.
Vincent del Bosque and his charges, however, will know that few teams in this golden age of Spanish football have come closer to ending their monopoly on silverware than Italy on Thursday evening.
The omens were hardly in the Azzurri's favour. The previous clash of the two teams, the final of Euro 2012, had ended in a humiliating 4-0 win for Spain, a disastrous result for Cesare Prandelli's men. In this tournament, too, a 4-3 victory over Japan followed by conceding four goals in turn against the hosts betrayed serious defensive weaknesses in the coach's system.
In the semifinal though, Prandelli got the tactical decisions absolutely correct.
A team forged in Turin—seven of the starting XI, plus Sebastian Giovinco who entered off the bench, are contracted to Juventus—replicated their club form with an aggressive, combative display across the field. Bonucci, Barzagli and Chiellini demonstrated their innate understanding with one another to form a formidable back line, which in turn gave Christian Maggio license to get up and down the pitch, adding another attacking option.
So used to enjoying the lion's share of possession, Spain were forced to assume a new role in the game as they were harried mercilessly by the Juve-inspired midfield and defence, making the likes of Xavi and Andres Iniesta rush on the ball and make uncharacteristic mistakes.
This sudden levelling of the playing field, as it were, meant that for the first time in recent years the Furia Roja struggled to impose themselves on a rival. Only in the final minutes of extra time, when Javi Martinez struck the post and Gianluigi Buffon came up with a pair of excellent saves, did Italy look uncomfortable in the heat of Fortaleza.
Indeed, but for the lack of a seasoned goalscorer Prandelli's stars might well have advanced to the final. The suspension of Mario Balotelli was a giant blow for the Azzurri who needed someone in the box to convert their chances. As it was, Daniele De Rossi and Maggio both spurned glorious chances in the first half, while Emanuele Giaccherini struck the woodwork after the interval.
In the end, Bonucci's misfortune proved to be Spain's jubilation. The Juventus defender was the first and only man to miss from the spot, following 12 penalties that had all been impeccably executed. Juan Mata did not err to confirm victory, and the stage is now set for the dream final, the hosts against the best team on the planet.
Italy, meanwhile, have the consolation prize of a third-place playoff against Uruguay to look forward to, but their thoughts will be further into the future. Having fallen just short against the champions, Prandelli and his players will come back to Brazil for the World Cup knowing they have what it takes to beat any of the competitors.
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