FORMER Arsenal man, Cesc Fabregas, steered home an impressive passing sequence from Spain to cancel out an earlier strike by Antonio Di Natale, as the two favourites of Group C went head-to-head.
Only three minutes prior, 34 year old Di Natale, who had himself only just come on, found space between the Spanish centre-backs and bent shot around an advancing Iker Casillas.
Torres, Llorente and Negredo all watched from the bench as Spanish boss Vicente del Bosque opted for a strikerless, 4-6-0 formation. Meanwhile, Italy opted for a 3-5-2 using a Sweeper and Wingbacks.
This packed midfield battle meant the opening 45 minutes proved a tentative affair as each team attempted to suss the other out. Spain, as one might expect, had the lion’s share of the possession, but with no striker they seemed to lack any real threat to a solid backline commanded by Daniele De Rossi in the Sweeper role.
The best chance of the half fell to Thiago Motta right on the stroke of half-time. His powerful header was parried away by Spanish capital Iker Casillas following some bright build up play.
The second-half proved a much livelier affair and in the space of the opening five minutes, two fantastic saves by the ever present, Gianluigi Buffon, denied Fabregas and Iniesta to keep the scores level.
The biggest chance by far came to Manchester City man, Mario Balotelli. Italy’s number 9 got the better of Sergio Ramos and advanced on goal leaving the Spanish defender trailing. As the world looked on, Balotelli seemed caught in two minds; shoot or square to a waiting Antonio Cassano. He did neither and his dallying let the Real Madrid man, Ramos, back in to tackle the threat.
Moments later Balotelli was subbed.
His replacement Di Natale needed little time to settle in. Only three minutes after coming on, the man who has scored 29 goals this season, found space in the middle and timed his run superbly before giving the Italians the lead at the Arena Gdansk stadium.
The Azzurri’s joy was short-lived however. A smart passage of play by Iniesta, David Silva and Fabregas opened up the solid Italian backline and the former Arsenal man passed home superbly to level the scores.
This seemed to swing the game heavily back in favour of the Spaniards, and the next quarter of an hour was all La Roja as they pressed for a second. The tiki-taka football was in full flow as fans greeted each pass with an ‘Olé’ and the Italians were forced to soak up a lot of pressure – but much like in the first-half, the lack of any final product seemed evident.
The introduction of Fernando Torres on 73 minutes seemed to acknowledge that and within 60 seconds, the £50m man found himself one on one with Buffon but it was the Italian captain who won the battle as he knocked it out for a throw.
Torres must have breathed a sigh of relief just a minute later as Antonio Di Natale chose to inexplicably volley, rather than head, a chipped pass from just 10 yards out, only to see his effort bounce agonisingly wide of a stranded Casillas post.
El Nino once again broke free late on after a one-two with Xavi, however the Spaniard, looking sluggish, checked his run before going for an emphatic lob over an advancing Buffon from 20 yards. As it hit the roof of the net, the despair in the face of Jesus Navas — who had replaced David Silva — was clear for all to see as he stood in space to Torres’ right simply awaiting the forward to roll him in for a golden opportunity.
It was an interesting affair from two teams trying new formations. The tiki-taka of Spain is mesmerising but as good as this game was, it will offer hope to others in the tournament that the formidable favourites Spain can be beaten.