Euro 2016 - Round of 16
Monday, June 27th, 2016
Kick-off: 12:00 PM EST
Venue: Stade de France (Paris)
Collab Blog by Justin Sherman (@JShermOfficial) and Alessandro Pugliese (@sandro_pugliese):
Head to head
Italy has failed to defeat Spain in the last 5 meetings between the sides, with 3 wins for the Spanish and two draws. The last time the Azzurri defeated La Roja in a competitive game was all the way back in the 1994 edition of the World Cup in the United States. Roberto Baggio scored a late second half goal for a 2-1 win that progressed the Italians into the semifinal.
These sides have met in the knockout rounds in the last two editions of the Euro Cup, with Spain advancing on penalties in 2008, and once again in the 2012 final by a score of 4-0, the widest margin of victory in any European Championship final.
How we got here:
The Azzurri came off a terrible showing at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil and Antonio Conte replaced Cesare Prandelli on the bench and led Italy to an undefeated Euro qualifying campaign. Conte received some criticism for some exclusions of the squad he brought to France. But an opening 2-0 win over group favorites, Belgium, and a stern one goal victory over Sweden have silenced the critics. Italy secured first place in Group E after playing two matches and then lost to Ireland 1-0 in their last match. The Italians really only looked impressive in their first match so it is to be seen if Conte will have his side up to the task.
Like the Azzurri, Spain's title defense at the 2014 World Cup was an absolute disaster. Gone in the group stages with more questions than answers, La Roja needed to adapt. Despite pressure in the tabloids, and from fans, the Spanish federation decided to retain manager Vicente del Bosque in good faith over his past triumphs. Although they began with a somewhat troubling start, Spain breezed through qualification to easily win their group. Like Conte, Del Bosque made some controversial selections for the Euro’s by leaving players such as Juan Mata and Isco behind. Any doubts were quickly extinguished, as Spain swept aside the Czech Republic and Turkey by an aggregate score of 4-0 playing with a flare and adoration that we had come to expect in recent times. But optimism was quickly tempered as Croatia stunned the Spanish in the final group game, winning the group, and sending Spain to the death part of the bracket in the process.
What is the key to a victory for Spain?
Sandro: Be dynamic in attack. Conte’s side could probably handle tiki-taka down the middle of the field quite well. Spain needs to move the ball quickly and look to get some crosses in. Movement off the ball will be key to break down the Italian defense.
Justin: As my esteemed colleague Sandro mentioned, Spain must play with pace and purpose. Keeping the ball in the center of the park and standing around will only play into Italy's strengths, as the Juventus led back line of Chiellini, Bonucci and Barzagli are about as penetrable as Fort Knox. Jordi Alba and Juanfran will be critical, as their masquerading runs down the flanks provide outlets for crosses and link-up play. At the same time, both can't neglect their defensive duties allowing Italy to hit back on the counter the way Croatia did. I'll be looking for Spain to replicate the game plan that was so successful against the Turks, with the ball being pushed forward through the center backs allowing more movement for the midfield.
What is the key to a victory for Italy?
Sandro: Discipline. Italy will need to be solid and compact defensively, not giving Spain time and space on the ball will be vital. I think we’ll see Conte have his time play in a similar fashion as they did against Belgium; allow the opponent to have possession but not allow them many opportunities and attack mostly with speed on the counter. Spain’s performance against Croatia showed they can be a bit vulnerable at the back while Italy definitely have the ability to attack dangerously, creating good chances. They’ll need to play as a cohesive unit and play with energy and passion.
Justin: Let's face it, this Italian attack is about as lethal as a garden snake. The days of Andrea Pirlo's superhuman vision or Roberto Baggio’s eloquent brilliance are long gone. This version relies on an attack that features much less possession, but taking advantage of the other teams errors. Against Croatia, Spain looked extremely susceptible to the counter and set pieces. Sergio Ramos is good for at least one foul in a dangerous area per game, so Italy must take advantage when these opportunities present themselves. We know the defense -- which is arguably the finest in this tournament -- will keep them in the game. With Antonio Candreva likely to miss out after picking up a knock against Sweden, the onus will be on players such as Giaccherini and Marco Parolo to use their pace to stretch the Spanish back line.
Which players will be the deciding factor?
Sandro: Buffon and Bonucci defensively for the Italians, which goes without saying. Bonucci needs to keep the defense organized and hopefully can ping balls going forward like he did against Belgium. De Rossi will need to be up to the task for this big game, closing passing lanes and intercepting passes in front of the back line. In a big loss, Antonio Candreva will miss the match with an injury. It remains to be seen if Conte will play with a more defensive or more attacking right wing back. And most importantly for Italy is they absolutely must finish their chances, whether it’s Pellé, Eder, Giaccherini or anyone else. The Azzurri might not have too many chances so they must put the ball in the back of the net when they have the opportunity.
For Spain, obviously it has been Iniesta pulling the strings so far and I expect him to continue that. He might be able to break down the stellar Italian defense and find that killer pass. Alvaro Morata will also be a key man for Vicente Del Bosque’s side. He’s familiar with all his former Juve teammates and will look to be a menace leading the Spanish attack.
Justin: For Italy, I believe the player to watch is De Rossi. He will be tasked with marking Andres Iniesta and Cesc Fabregas, two players who have given him fits in the past. It is imperative that the Roman limits their space and makes them feel his presence. For all of their brilliance, the diminutive Spaniards aren't keen to the opposition imposing their physicality. As a whole, the Azzurri must retain their focus and keep the side compact. If anyone tries to play hero and steps out of their limits (looking at you Giaccherini) it could prove to be fatal.
I'm not sure if that was David de Gea or Iker Casillas reincarnated, but the goalkeeper's performance against Croatia brought back nightmares of Brazil. The Manchester United man committed more errors than I can count on one hand, which fortunately, didn't result in at least two more goals for the Croats. Roughly 115 yards away, he will be staring into the eyes of possibly the greatest keeper of all time in Gianluigi Buffon. He has been in this spot and on this stage more than he can remember. De Gea, meanwhile, remains an unknown. He has never gone far in the Champions League, and is leading the Spanish national team into a crucial match for the very first time. It is imperative that he cleans up his mistakes and plays confident when called into action.
Who has the edge in the coaches box?
Sandro: I’ll put my faith in Conte for this one. Nobody can get his team more prepared for a single match than the former Juve coach. Being the underdog also plays perfectly into his plans. Conte will have this team fired up to leave it all on the field, with non-stop grinta.
Justin: This one is extremely tough to call.
Antonio Conte is a brilliant tactician, who combines a winning mentality and the ability to foster great team spirit amongst his players. You know the Italians will be out for blood in an effort to avenge their embarrassing defeat in Kiev, and will come out with an energy and passion that will be tough for even the most die hard supporter to match.
With that said, I must still give the slightest of edges to Del Bosque. He remains the only manager in history to have won the Champions League, the European Championship and the World Cup. He may not be fiery -- and quite frankly, looks like a cigar shop owner on the coast of Mallorca -- but he knows how to win. He embodies a quiet confidence and loyalty that his players believe in. Look for Spain to be much more decisive and clear with their game plan going into Paris.
Which country has the better food?
Sandro: Italy. Period. Next Question.
Justin: My mother’s paella would kindly disagree with you sir, but if loading up on carbs day-in and day-out is your thing, Bon appetit.
Sandro: Italy plays better in big games against big teams, with Belgium being the most recent example. Candreva being out really puts a damper on my hopes for Italy to pull through. But I think it will be 1-1 after 90 minutes, with Italy winning it in Extra Time or penalties. Morata and Florenzi to score the goals.
Justin: It’s a matchup fit for a final and one I wholeheartedly wanted to avoid. Italy will be completely content in having the Spanish dominate possession by passing side-to-side, and striking on the counter with an over the top ball. I believe one will get through off the boot of Graziano Pelle, but Spain will equalize via Jordi Alba to send it to extra time, eventually leading to penalties. The 2008 edition will repeat itself once more, as Spain advance (5-4) and all of us need heart transplants.