One of the pregame talking points leading up to Thursday's Confederations Cup semifinal between Italy and Spain was the absence of Mario Balotelli. The AC Milan man injured his thigh during Italy's 4-2 group stage loss to Brazil and was sent home to Italy.
Most gave the Azzurri no chance at all without their most explosive player. Balotelli scored the winner in Italy's opening 2-1 victory against Mexico with an impressive display of strength. He was dangerous all game against Japan and scored the penalty that put the Azzurri up 3-2. His acrobatic assist against Brazil gave Emanuele Giaccherini the chance to momentarily equalize the match at one goal apiece.
Without him in the lineup, many expected the Italians to meekly submit to the Spanish onslaught and proceed to the third-place game against Uruguay.
The actual game was much different.
For the first 90 minutes Italy achieved the impressive feat of controlling the pace of the game without controlling the lion's share of possession. Even when playing with a center-forward in Fernando Torres, the Spaniards tried to force their way through the middle of the field to score, but Cesare Prandelli's 3-4-3 formation funneled them to the Italian back three.
They were a post away from scoring the breakthrough three minutes into extra time, and even though Spain dictated the majority of the extra period, the two teams found themselves in the exact same place they found themselves five years ago—goalless after 120 minutes of play and headed for a shootout. Though they lost the shootout, Italy can hold their heads high after a remarkable performance.
Even more remarkable is that the Italians did this without any significant contribution from the man who replaced Balotelli in the lineup.
Before being replaced by Sebastian Giovinco as extra time began, Alberto Gilardino had only 18 touches in his 90 minutes. By comparison, Giovinco had more than half that in a third of the time on the field—and Balotelli averaged nearly twice as many at slightly more than 34 per match in the group stage.
Gilardino did make two key passes, but managed only one shot—off target—and was caught offside a whopping five times.
To be fair, the World Cup winner is a much different player than Balotelli. Gilardino is the classic target man who sets up in the box and heads in a cross or takes a maximum of one touch to get himself into position to shoot. Balotelli is a far more dynamic player who can set himself up in a one-on-one situation in addition to reaping the benefits of his teammates' service.
Still, you have to think that Prandelli built his plan of attack Thursday around the abilities of his center-forward. Gilardino simply made no impact on the game whatsoever. Italy's best chances of the match came from other players.
Think of Emanuele Giaccherini's post-clipping shot in extra time. The pair of Christian Maggio headers in the first half that were parried away by Iker Casillas. Or of Claudio Marchisio's 69th-minute shot off a ground cross from Maggio that was blocked by Gerard Pique. All these events had one thing in common: Alberto Gilardino was not involved.
Gilardino may be the starter by default against Uruguay, but don't be surprised to see Sebastian Giovinco or even Alessandro Diamanti starting the consolation match up top.
Italy played the match of the year on the international stage this season. It was also arguably Gilardino's most important match since the 2006 World Cup semi against Germany—and he was small party to it.
All statistics from WhoScored.