Spain versus Italy. Attacking flair versus cautious defending. Pressing for an early goal versus wearing down an opponent for late victory. Looking to create chances versus looking to smoother the opposition. Only this time around the cliches are switched; the roles reversed. Italy's best chance is early pressure and a willingness to attack; Spain will stick to the formula that won them their first World Cup and defend through possession. On Sunday in Kiev, old preconceptions need not apply.
Spain v. Italy
Sunday 7:45PM BST/2:45PM EST
For Italy, More of the Same
Spain's methodical passing and an often languid transition into attack marks them as a side better able than most to recognise the threat of Italy's deep lying man of the tournament, Andrea Pirlo. Recognising his threat, though, wasn't enough when the two sides first met and Pirlo set up the 61st minute goal by Antonio Di Natale that briefly put Italy ahead. Still, Spain's natural pressing game and a tendency to sit all three of Xabi Alonso, Sergio Busquets, and Xavi deep in midfield should allow near constant pressure on Italy's main creative threat.
If Pirlo can find a few moments of calm in the overcrowded midfield, though, strikers Cassano and Ballotelli should be able to provide an outlet if they drift wide, looking to collect the ball in space and run at Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique. The Italian attack had a fair degree of success doing just that in the group opener against Spain, and fresh off their humiliation of what had widely been considered the best centre pack duo in the tournament in Germany's Holger Badstuber and Mats Hummels they should be even more confident.
In defence, a surprise decision to go with three centre backs helped provide the platform for Prandelli's Italy to counter Spain's midfield strength in their group game. But this time around, with the element of surprise gone and Andrea Barzagli fit—not to mention the success Italy has since had with a more conventional four man backline—it would be surprising if they didn't stick with the lineup that beat Germany in the semi-finals. Moreover, given the likelihood that Spanish fullbacks Jordi Alba and Alvaro Arbeloa would have some success pinning back Italy's wingbacks were they return to a three centre back system, such a move would almost certainly end with Italy forced into a fairly defensive stance.
When one considers that their approach to games against England and Gemrany marked them as the most attacking side in the knockout rounds and that, perhaps most importantly, Spain's game is built around grinding down over-awed, passively defensive sides, then four at the back begins to seem a near certainty.
The Spanish Reality
It's become increasingly hard to avoid the reality that rather than trading in creative, attacking football, Spain's success in recent years has been built around slowly wearing down opponents by way of a conservative possession game and looking to strike late once those opponents have become exhausted. And it's become increasingly clear that reacting to Spain's talent by dropping deep and trying to play a passive game doesn't often end very well for anybody but Spain.
Portugal managed to disrupt Spain as well as anyone in recent years in their semi-final meeting by pressing high up the pitch, forcing their Iberian neighbours to bypass midfield and transition into attack more quickly than they would have liked. They didn't, however, manage to turn that early success disrupting Spanish possession into any kind of attacking success for themselves. In defeating Germany on Thursday by matching the favoured side's aggressive, attacking football, however, Italy showed exactly the qualities needed to find success—or at least to allow the potential for success—against Spain.
Italy, though, will have to continue to show a willingness to press and attack against a more generally favoured side. And they will then need to find a goal before they begin to tire. Far too many sides are almost entirely reactive when it comes time to face Spain, and that reactive approach rarely works. Even at its best, as when Italy approached their group stage match again Spain in a largely reactive manner, any success it does lead to tends to be fairly minor.
For the sake of their chances to win—and for the sake of neutrals hoping for an entertaining match—Italy will need to find a way to do better in the finals than they did in the group opener, no matter that they had some minor success and took home a draw. To win they will need to attack hard from the opening whistle, seeking to disrupt Spain's metronomic midfield and exploit lingering defensive question marks at a time when their legs are freshest. And, as was the case against the Germans, they will need both of their strikers to play to their full ability.
A Chance to Counter the Counter
For Spain, after being frustrated for long stretches in their first meeting with Italy, success began to come when they countered the narrow Italian approach by adding width. While Jesus Navas' tunnel vision in the attacking third may make him seem a poor fit for Spain—and perhaps more suited to a side playing on the counter with a towering central target to whip blind balls into from the byline—he would at least help to stretch an Italian defence that seemed largely comfortable when they last met.
With continuing injury concerns for Daniele De Rossi and Giorgio Chiellini—and with Germany's relative success attacking Italy's left flank in the second half through Marco Reus as an example—starting Navas could be a gamble worth taking for Vincente del Bosque. Plus there are other options for Spain who would also provide more natural width, players like Pedro Rodriguez and Santi Cazorla who seem better fits for their pass and move game, even if they and on-form striker Fernando Llorente have so far found themselves shunned by the conservative del Bosque.
A tactical curveball, though, and a chance to exploit Italy's under-manned flanks, could see one or even two of them introduced. It's the kind of move that could unbalance an Italian side that sets out to aggressively press a compact Spanish midfield, and it would likely lead to the kind of open, uptempo, attacking football Spain now claim as their birthright. Packing the midfield and attempting to ride out the early Italian storm, though, seems a far more likely road for the final to go down, which leaves only one real question to answer—whether Italy can do what Portugal couldn't and score an early goal.