Spain after their routine top placed finish in Group B will face Cesare Prandelli’s Italy in a repeat of last summer’s Euro 2012 final in the second of this year’s Confederations Cup Semi-Finals. Italy head into Thursday’s match in Fortaleza without their talisman and main attacking threat, Mario Balotelli who has been sent home from the Confederations Cup due to a thigh injury with the AC Milan striker expressing his disappointment at missing the clash with Spain to Italian media, “I feel like a loser leaving this way. I would have liked to stay but there’s the Champions League [preliminary round] so I’ve got to take care of myself.”
The loss of Balotelli is not the only fitness worry for the Azzurri with Ignazio Abate being ruled out for the rest of the tournament with a dislocated shoulder picked up against Brazil and Andrea Pirlo still training away from the rest of the squad in his bid to recover from the muscle complaint that kept him from playing against Brazil last Saturday evening.
Vicente del Bosque’s Spain normally don’t worry too much about injuries with the vast pool of talent that usually occupies their bench being enough to see La Roja through any crisis however the World Champions enter the Semi-Final fixture against Italy with several doubts over Gerard Pique who picked up a knock in the concluding group match against Nigeria and it is expected Raul Albiol will be brought in to replace Pique should the Barcelona defender not be passed fit to face Italy.
Cesare Prandelli throughout the Confederations Cup has continued the work he set in motion during Italy’s surprisingly successful Euro 2012 campaign last summer with the traditional defensive Italian style of ‘Catenaccio’ being cast aside for a much more attack orientated approach with Mario Balotelli being the spearhead of their forward four with three attacking midfielders positioned just behind him. This has worked well throughout the tournament with Balotelli showing an increased interest in moving much deeper into almost a midfield role at times to simply pick up the ball and be part of Italy’s build-up play. This ‘pro-active’ Mario Balotelli is something fans of Manchester City very seldom, if ever, saw. However it has been highly effective for the Italians.
Prandelli has flirted with a number of systems throughout the three group fixtures with the 4-2-3-1 system being his preferred formation, however the Italian coach has been plagued by the lack of fitness shown by Stephan El Shaarawy in the opening stages of the summer with Prandelli having to select the much more industrious Emanuele Giaccherini to play on the left hand side of the attacking midfield three. Whilst there was glimpses of a partnership blossoming in the Brazil fixture, Mario Balotelli and Giaccherini have struggled to adapt to each other’s individual playing styles and the link-up play between the two has often been disjointed throughout the tournament which has left Italy lacking an element of ‘bite’ in their attacks which is something they will need to overcome Spain.
With El Shaarawy making his first appearance of the tournament in the final twenty minutes against Brazil, the AC Milan forward is likely to be deemed fit enough to play against Spain and with the intelligent movement of the experienced Gilardino likely to be up front against Spain the pace and astute eye for a pass El Shaarawy has at his disposal could well compliment Gilardino’s playing style in a way Giaccherini’s and Balotelli’s simply couldn’t.
Italy were very much a side in turmoil throughout the first forty five minutes against Brazil in Salvador on Saturday with Andrea Pirlo missing out through injury meaning the whole 4-2-3-1 system was ineffective as well as Daniele De Rossi being suspended. Under normal circumstances the midfield pairing of Pirlo and De Rossi would turn into a midfield three with Pirlo dropping back into an anchoring defensive midfield role and De Rossi and one of Montolivo or Marchisio would drop alongside him to form a different midfield pairing. The positioning of Pirlo always gave the Italian defenders an option, if they were being pressed and put in a difficult situation then Pirlo would always been around about them and available to receive the ball, the experience Italian could then turn and distribute the ball to either flank and kick-start an attacking move.
However with Pirlo not there it was almost as if the Italian defence didn’t quite know what to do without him, Brazil’s quick pressing game often put Chiellini and De Sciglio under pressure and almost subconsciously they resorted to passing the ball into the space Pirlo would normally occupy, however he wasn’t there and the ball was easily cut out by the Brazilians who then had the ball in a dangerous area. This is a problem that Italy has to address in the short term if Andrea Pirlo missed the clash with Spain and more importantly in the long term when Pirlo retires.
Italy’s midfield performance was also disrupted by a head injury picked up by Riccardo Montolivo in the twenty fifth minute which forced Prandelli to bring on Giaccherini and shuffle Marchisio back into a more central role. It is expected however Montolivo will be fit enough to face Spain on Thursday which alongside the return of De Rossi will restore some quality and much needed composure to the Italian midfield.
Spain whilst playing their usual brand of attractive ‘tiki taka’ attacking football thus far this tournament, del Bosque’s men have yet to be challenged at all with the exception of a twenty minute spell in the final group game against Nigeria. Uruguay were a shadow of their former selves in the opening fixture against Spain with the South Americans saving their finest period of play until the final two minutes of the match, Tahiti were quite simply as we all expected, steamrolled by a Spanish side who were to a degree rather profligate in front of goal and Nigeria despite the twenty minute period in the first half where their pace caused the Spanish backline problems, faded for the rest of the match which resulted in a capitulation and a 3-0 defeat.
Spain Coach del Bosque will on Thursday continue with the 4-3-3 system which has been so successful for him since the start of Spain’s domination of the International scene in 2008 with the only change likely to be at the heart of the defence if Pique should not be passed fit. Whilst nobody in the camp will publicly acknowledge it, you can be sure that the Spanish are significantly happier that Mario Balotelli will not be facing them in Fortaleza on Thursday with the AC Milan forward’s physical presence and athleticism displayed in the tournament so far likely to cause them problems.
Whilst Alberto Gilardino is an experienced goalscorer at the highest level there is little evidence to suggest he could cause Spain’s defence as many problems as Balotelli would have done and there is every danger that if Spain’s pressing game is up to its usually standard Gilardino will become isolated and not receive the ball, in this situation Balotelli would have probably pressed Spain himself and won the ball back. This is something Gilardino will not do. Conversely, should Stephan El Shaarawy play just in behind Gilardino the intelligent runs that can be made only by a striker who has spent a lot of time in the game could potentially give Sergio Ramos and Pique/Albiol problems.
Spain I expect will continue with Pedro on the right hand side and Cesc Fabregas on the left which leaves Roberto Soldado in the lone central position , there has been calls for del Bosque to start one of Fernando Torres or David Villa with the goals they have scored in the tournament thus far being taking into account however Roberto Soldado is a much more unselfish player. Rather than waiting for service Soldado has played with his back to goal in Brazil this summer and has looked to play the ball into either Fabregas or Pedro. This role is very similar to that taken up by Fred in the Brazilian team with the Fluminense striker holding the ball up and looking to feed Neymar in on the left hand side. This self sacrificial role explains while Soldado and Fred are not are the forefront of the golden boot award for this tournament.
Prediction: Italy missing Mario Balotelli is of great significance, Spain’s build-up play in their own defensive area will not be disrupted by Balotelli’s pressing and Italy will have less of a physical presence going forward. The Italian’s inability to modify their passing game and play at a quicker tempo will yet again cost them against the Spanish as it did in last summer’s European Championship final although I doubt any team would have given the Spanish any trouble considering the form they were in that day. Italy simply have to look back to how they played against Spain in their opening fixture of Euro 2012 with the Azzurri’s passing being at a significantly quick tempo which didn’t allow Spain’s pressing game to have any effect, if Prandelli’s side can reproduce this in midfield then they stand a chance, alas however I do not believe this will happen and can see Spain easing to the Confederations Cup final quite comfortably. I can see La Roja winning by a 3-0 scoreline with the Italian’s lack of explosive power going forward which was lost in the shape of Balotelli meaning they won’t be able to cause Spain any significant difficulties.
Written by Chris Winterburn
Follow Chris on Twitter @Chriswin4