It certainly didn't go the way Vicente del Bosque expected, but Spain will be heading to the 2013 Confederations Cup final against Brazil.
In one of the more thrilling Confed Cup matches in the tournament's history, Spain defeated semifinal opponent Italy 7-6 in penalty kicks after the first 120-plus minutes went by without a goal. Jesus Navas played the hero for Spain, knocking a goal past Gianluigi Buffon with all the pressure of the world on his shoulders.
Former Manchester City defender Paul Lake tweeted after the match, congratulating Navas on his excellent performance:
The back-and-forth penalty kicks phase was one for the ages.
Time and again, Spaniards and Brazilians found their way to get the ball past Buffon and Iker Casillas, both of whom had been absolutely brilliant throughout the match. The two teams were in the most pressure-packed situation of all, yet went through the first six phases without missing a penalty kick.
Spain's opportunity came thanks to Leonardo Bonucci. The defender, not used to taking penalty kicks in such situations, loaded up, knocked a right-footed kick way over the upper-right woodwork to give Navas a chance to play the hero.
Navas' clutch kick gave Spain their 29th straight international competition match without a defeat. That extends the record they set earlier in the Confederations Cup, and they will have a chance to hit 30 straight in their final against Brazil. Spain also set another international record during this tournament in group play, defeating Tahiti 10-0—a FIFA record.
While much of the focus will be on the waning moments of Thursday evening's game, that would ultimately be a disservice. Spain and Italy played one of the finer matches in recent international competition history, with innumerable momentum shifts and excellent form throughout for both sides.
In the first half, it was Italy who found themselves in consistently great position to score. Starting out with an aggressive attack—one that was necessary against Spain—the Italians peppered Casillas with constant scoring opportunities. They opened in the third minute with an Emanuele Giaccherini attempt that went wayward, but almost immediately found themselves deep in Spain's zone.
The story of the first 45 minutes, though, was Spain's ability to keep Italy off the board. They found numerous ways to block attempts and hold off the oncoming Italian attack with a shocking level of proficiency. Italy had six different opportunities to get a stranglehold on the lead, and each time they found a way to come up empty-handed.
Certainly, most of the credit in that situation goes to Spain.
They were patient, disciplined and picked their points of aggression wisely. Nevertheless, the Italians have to wonder what could have happened had Mario Balotelli been in the lineup. Balotelli was ruled out of the remainder of the 2013 Confederations Cup with a quad injury, leaving Italy to scramble finding a tactical answer.
The 22-year-old striker had picked up for most of his teammates' shortcomings on the attack, but it's impossible not to commend the effort level given by Italy on Thursday. Playing without their best player, they were still able to get into to put a massive scare into the world's best team early. That said, Italy wound up taking nine shots in the first half, none of which were on target.
As for Spain, their attack mostly resembled what one would expect. They displayed a patience on par with their defense, taking only two shots in the entire first half—both of which missed their target. It certainly wasn't the half Spain was looking for, and they had to be happy to go into the second 45-minute half with the score tied.
For the rest of the match, though, it would be Spain who would be thinking about their missed opportunities.
Taking back over possession, the Spaniards found themselves dominating almost the entirety of the last hour of match time. They found consistent opportunities from the edges of the box, a place where Spain had been so dominant throughout this tournament.
But as was the case for the entirety of the match, Buffon and his defense were brilliant. They kept Spain off the board, sending the match to extra time—also known as the flukiest place in all of soccer.
And in those two 15-minute refrains, Spain and Italy had chances to lock up the finals berth.
Drained from over 90 minutes in sweltering June conditions, Giaccherini looked like he was about to score, but sent a shot from just outside the left goal box off the woodwork—a chance that he'll undoubtedly remember going forward. Spain also had their chance when Xavi hit a beautiful strike that Buffon barely blocked off the post.
In all, both sides played a legendary match. The difference between them was mere feet on a penalty kick. Spain's seven men simply did the job one better than Italy's.
Now we'll get to see if Spain can do the most daunting task of all—take down Brazil in a Confederations Cup finale. The Brazilians have won this tournament thrice prior and have the home crowd cheering them on.
The match will carry implications into next year's World Cup. One just has to wonder if it will be able to live up to Thursday's semifinal.
|Iker Casillas||A||Gianluigi Buffon ||A|
|Gerard Pique||C+||Giorgio Chiellini||A-|
|Sergio Ramos||B+||Andrea Barzagli||C+|
|Álvaro Arbeloa||B-||Leonardo Bonucci||C|
|Jordi Alba||B||Christian Maggio||B-|
|Andrés Iniesta||B||Daniele De Rossi||A|
|Sergio Busquets||A-||Emanuele Giaccherini||B|
|Fernando Torres||C+||Antonio Candreva||B|
|David Silva||C||Alberto Gilardino||C|
|Javi Martínez ||C||Alberto Aquilani ||C|
|Juan Mata||C+||Sebastian Giovinco||C+|
|Jesus Navas||B+||Riccardo Montolivo||B-|
Follow Tyler Conway on Twitter: