Spain vs. Italy: 5 Things We Learned from Confederations Cup Semifinal

Alex Richards@@AA_RichardsContributor IJune 27, 2013

Spain vs. Italy: 5 Things We Learned from Confederations Cup Semifinal

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    It was close, but in the end the Spanish prevailed.

    After a fine effort, Cesare Prandelli's Italy succumbed to a 7-6 penalty shootout defeat. Jesus Navas' decisive spot-kick allowed Vicente del Bosque's Spain their place in Sunday's final against hosts Brazil.

    Nonetheless, for 120 minutes, the Azzurri went toe-to-toe with the side who battered them 4-0 in last summer's European Championship final. The performance is a cause for renewed optimism amongst Italian supporters as much as anything.

    For the Spanish, it is another competitive win and another clean sheet against top-level opponents in a knockout match—their last knockout concession came against the United States at this tournament in 2009. The 2010 World Cup winners just continue to churn out results, even when they aren't quite at their best.

    With that being said, here's a look at five things that we've learned from the Spain vs. Italy Confederations Cup semifinal:

1. Double-Pivot Remains a Must for Spain

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    Throughout the Confederations Cup, in the absence of Xabi Alonso, Vicente del Bosque has done away with the double-pivot at the heart of his side and which has been an integral part of La Roja's success under the former Real Madrid manager.

    There are those who have been longing for the World Cup and European champions to go without the Alonso-Busquets axis for quite some time. This tournament, their wish has been fulfilled.

    But don't expect it to remain this way moving forward—quite simply, because Spain can be got at.

    Nigeria showed it in their final group game. Sure, they lost 3-0, but the African champions should have scored at least once. And had their finishing shown more composure, they would have.

    Tonight, with the direct surges of Antonio Candreva and Claudio Marchisio from central to wide areas, as well as those through the heart of midfield from Daniele De Rossi in the opening half, Spain's defence looked far from secure.

    Even though they dominated possession in the first period—it's Spain, whatever formation they play, you can expect them to dominate the ball like no other—Italy's transitions from back to front caused problems. The Azzurri, but for good goalkeeping from Iker Casillas and some woeful finishing of their own, should have led at half-time.

    Eventually the Spanish got through. But the single-pivot has again shown its ugly side: It asks too much of Sergio Busquets and doesn't adequately cover for the attacking runs of Jordi Alba.

    For a side who demands to dictate the game as much as the Spanish, they aren't anywhere near in control as much they'd ideally like to be at present.

2. Flexible Italy Give Prandelli Food for Thought

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    Having appeared set in the last 12 months—curiously, since last summer's opening 1-1 draw with Spain at Euro 2012—on going with a defensive quartet, it was extremely intriguing to see Prandelli make use of a back three this evening.

    With a 3-4-2-1 formation, Prandelli out-thought del Bosque in the first 45 minutes. The Azzurri kept their shape tight through the centre when they didn't have the ball, before breaking quickly into wide areas as soon as they won it back.

    Napoli wing-back Christian Maggio and Lazio's Antonio Candreva gave Jordi Alba a multitude of problems down Spain's left. Marchisio's running in the inside left channel often went unchecked. Emmanuele Giaccherini asked questions of Alvaro Arbeloa, but too often picked the wrong option in the final third.

    Had Italy led at half-time, no one could have begrudged them, as all too often they steamed past the Spanish midfield.

    Overall, Prandelli's tactical switch caused the world champions problems. Perhaps had Mario Balotelli been available to lead the line, the Italians may well have won the match. For all Alberto Gilardino's efforts, he lacks the pace and technique of the AC Milan striker.

    Now, onlookers will watch with interest at how Prandelli prepares ahead of next summer's main event. Does he stick with the back four that he seemingly prefers, or retain the trio which worked so well to neutralise the Spanish for so long?

    Certainly, looking forward, such flexibility should be harnessed. It could well make all the difference in Brazil next year.

3. Magnificent Daniele De Rossi Has Few Peers

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    The 29-year-old put in a magnificent display that few in world football would have the quality or positional intelligence to rival.

    For the opening 45 minutes, the Roma man worked excellently at the heart of the Italian midfield, breaking up play in front of his side's defence before thrusting through the centre of the field to lead the Azzurri attack.

    His transitional play, leading the Italian charge, was a major reason why they should have led going into the break. Arguably, had he continued in his midfield role, Italy may not have lost some of their attacking impetus in the second half.

    With the half-time departure of Andrea Barzagli, however, De Rossi was asked to play the rest of the game at at the centre of the Italians defensive trio. Unfazed, he went about his business with class and authority, offering assurance alongside the Juventus duo of Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci.

    Commanding in the challenge and using the ball cleverly from the back, De Rossi barely missed a beat.

    His performance in both positions was of the highest quality, in what was a real war of attrition amongst two of Europe's premier international teams. With the exception of perhaps Spain's own Javi Martinez and Juventus' Chilean midfielder Arturo Vidal, it was a dual-performance of such class that you wouldn't encounter from too many others.

4. Containing Pedro & Jordi Alba Curtails Spain's Thrust

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    For all the love of tiki-taka and the phenomenal level of success it has brought, arguably Spain's two most impressive players in Brazil (and indeed this calendar year) have been the duo whose physical and mental characteristics—most notably, pace and dogged determination—are more important than any technical qualities they may possess: Jordi Alba and Pedro Rodriguez.

    Now, this isn't to say that both aren't vastly impressive technicians. They are. But the Barcelona duo's great strength in this side is the speed and verticality that they offer to del Bosque's starting XI.

    Their individual dynamism stands them out from the crowd. And their movement off the ball and ability to stretch the opposition makes them key weapons when the more intricate routes to goal aren't quite working.

    Tonight, however, both were largely subdued for the large part: Pedro couldn't get any joy on either flank, thanks to the blanket defensive coverage offered by the Italian wing-backs and covering centre-halves. Alba found his flank stoutly managed by both Candreva and Maggio, although he maybe should have scored in extra-time when found with a gorgeous chipped pass from Andres Iniesta.

    With the duo's rapid advances both largely curtailed, Italy were able to defend en masse and to continually play the game at a speed comfortable to themselves—namely, defending in first gear and advancing in fourth.

    Not until fatigue took its toll in the additional 30 minutes and another Spanish flyer, Jesus Navas, began to get joy against Chiellini, did the Azzurri ever look worried by Spain's pace in their own defensive third. Their resistance of the two Spanish speedsters was a major reason for that, and it will have certainly given onlooking managers something interesting to take note of in future.

5. Penalty Love

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    After 120 minutes of an attritional war which in the end could have gone either way, Spain and Italy put on a penalty-taking clinic.

    From Candreva's opening "Panenka," through to Navas' decisive last—missing out Bonucci's dreadful skied effort—the two European nations put on a masterclass of technique and downright nerve.

    The respective goalkeepers were barely given a sniff as penalties went high, low, left, right and centrally into the back of the net.

    13 out of 14 outstanding penalties. Not a bad ratio, to say the least. Had Bonucci not fired into the crowd, we could perhaps still be watching now!

    In all seriousness, however, in tight matches where a result is a necessity, there is still no better way to decide a winner. Maybe not for those involved, but for the neutral, it remains the most enjoyable way to end a match.