Second half substitute Antonio Di Natale’s well taken goal on the hour mark gave the Italians a deserved lead over defending champions Spain in Gdansk yesterday evening, before Cesc Fabregas restored parity with a neat finish from David Silva’s defence splitting pass just four minutes later.
Spain then had chances to snatch victory against much of the run of play, but Fernando Torres wasted several late opportunities.
Vicente Del Bosque elected to start without a recognised striker, with Cesc Fabregas the most advanced central figure in what was, essentially, a 4-6-0 formation. David Silva was lively however, and spurned two good chances in the opening few minutes.
There had been much speculation in the run up to kick-off over which formation Cesare Prandelli would select, and as predicted by much of the media, it was an untested 3-5-2 system, which saw Roma midfielder Daniele De Rossi drop back to partner Giorgio Chiellini and Leon Bonucci in a defensive trio.
De Rossi excelled in his new role from the early stages, as he grabbed the game by the scruff of the neck and drove Italy forward. Spurred on by De Rossi’s combativeness, the Azzurri began to control the game, and on thirteen minutes Spain goalkeeper Iker Casillas was called into action as he scrambled to divert an Andrea Pirlo freekick away from his goal.
Casillas looked less composed as he spilled Claudio Marchisio’s driven shot mid-way through the first half, and minutes later he faired only slightly better as another thunderbolt from Marchisio was drilled straight at the Spaniard.
Perhaps because they lacked an attacking pivot to revolve around, Xavi and Andres Iniesta’s probing play was yielding little in the way of chances, until the two combined to free Iniesta, but the Barcelona man could only fire tamely over Gianluigi Buffon’s goal.
But it was Italy who finished the first half the better as Thiago Motta’s close range header from Antonio Cassano’s cross brought a flying save Casillas just moments before the interval.
Despite being nothing more than a spectator for much of the first half, Buffon looked sharp when called into action to tip Iniesta’s goal-bound effort over the bar within the first few minutes of the second half.
The enigmatic Mario Balotelli, who had hustled and bustled all afternoon, then nicked the ball from the toe of a dithering Sergio Ramos on the touchline, and with acres of space in front of him bore down on goal. With Cassano bursting into the box, and Casillas drawn to his near post, Balotelli hesitated however, allowing the backtracking Ramos to recover with a superb tackle.
Balotelli’s indecision saw him removed, as Prandelli replaced the Manchester City forward with Di Natale, who had only been on the field for a matter of seconds before he collected Pirlo’s superb through ball, before calmly curling the ball around the advancing Casillas to give the Azzurri a precious lead.
But Spain’s class shone through, as Iniesta fed Silva, whose clever flick into the box found Fabregas, who in turn drilled a shot underneath the reach of Buffon for an instant reply.
The game then dramatically opened up as first Di Natale prodded wide when well placed, before Marchisio’s mazy run and neat give and go with Di Natale was only rewarded with a tame effort directed straight at Casillas by the Juventus midfielder.
But nothing could match the hat-trick of chances thrown away by late arrival Torres, the best of which saw the Chelsea man lob the ball over the frame of Buffon’s goal when the Italian goalkeeper was caught outside his box.
The draw ended Spain’s run of fourteen consecutive victories, but will feel like a well won point for both sides after an entertaining encounter, that saw both nations show enough quality to indicate that they should each make it through the group without complications.