For the second time in 12 months, Italy was forced into a tactical change before their respective matches against Spain. First at Euro 2012 in the group stage when Andrea Barzagli was injured, and it occurred again in the Confederations Cup semi-final with the Azzurri needing to address the issues in defence.
The result, just like the Euro, was a draw. It was 0-0 after two hours of football, but Spain eventually triumphed 7-6 on penalties thanks to Leonardo Bonucci blasting his spot kick over the bar in the seventh round. La Roja will now face the hosts Brazil in the final on Sunday while the Italians have a meeting against Uruguay six hours earlier to determine who finishes third.
Italy conceded at least three goals in back to back matches for the first time since 1976 when they faced Japan and Brazil in the group stage of the Confederations Cup. Since that opening game at Euro 2012, coach Cesare Prandelli had always used a back four in a 4-3-1-2 system. He switched to a 4-3-2-1 as he felt that his team was too easy to game plan against. However, that proved even more ineffective. Despite their potent attack scoring seven goals before the semi-final, they allowed eight, which is uncharacteristic of this Italian side.
Prandelli has been trying to revolutionise the Azzurri by having them play a more possession based game, but surely he didn’t intend for his team to leak goals left, right, and centre. Thankfully, that didn’t transpire in their showdown with Spain. In the previous 31 meetings, Italy had won 10, drawn 12, and lost 9 matches against the Spanish. They had also never been defeated by more than a two goal margin prior to the Euro final last summer. They were also arguably the better side in their opening game of the tournament, it was the same set of circumstances on Thursday.
The change to a 3-4-2-1 was of huge benefit to the Azzurri. They looked far more fluid and organized at the back, plus they were creating a lot of scoring chances. Christian Maggio had three shots, Claudio Marchisio had a golden opportunity of his own, and even Alberto Gilardino had a couple of attempts. This prompted a lot of Italy fans to think “How much would we be leading by if Mario Balotelli wasn’t injured?”
That’s no exaggeration either. Italy’s five shots after a half hour were already the most that Spain had seen in any other match at the Confederations Cup. The Italians outshot them at halftime, and even though the Spaniards eventually gained the edge in that department by fulltime and extra time, Italy still recorded 15 attempts. Of those, three were on target, which is where they could’ve used Balotelli. The Spanish defence couldn’t contain the likes of Antonio Candreva, Emanuele Giaccherini, and Maggio during the game.
By the end of the 120 minutes, the Italian players were so knackered that they could barely walk back to their bench before the penalties. Thankfully, they were given water and some quick stretches before going to the centre of the pitch to watch the dreaded shootout. It was arguably the most clinical shootout witnessed in recent memory.
All five players for each side converted to force sudden death. The sixth round began with Riccardo Montolivo, who buried his penalty before Sergio Busquets equalised to make it 6-6. All of the fans were wondering if all eleven shooters, including the goalkeepers would be able to make it through considering how easy it appeared for the players.
Luckily for the sake of viewers in Europe, the match ended after seven rounds at approximately 23:40 CET. Bonucci stepped up to make it 13/13 total in the shootout, but skied his attempt over the bar, opening the door for Spain to book their spot in the final. Jesus Navas made no mistake and knocked the ball past Gianluigi Buffon, clinching the win for La Roja in a near similar situation to their Euro semi-final triumph versus Portugal.
Despite the loss, Italy showed a lot of promise. The defence, as poor as it’s been, was solid and even without many quality individual defenders, the system suits them and mirrors those issues. Daniele De Rossi was once again a makeshift centre back as Andrea Barzagli came off injured and was arguably the Azzurri’s best player. He was just as impressive in midfield, proving that he’s a versatile and effective member of the squad.
The overall performance at the Confederations Cup hasn’t been one to write home about, but if Prandelli sticks with the back three, then the Azzurri have a very good chance to progress deep into the knockout stages at the World Cup next year.