A lot has changed for Spain since it routed Italy in the European Championship final four years ago.
While Italy remains the same hard-working team with solid defense and efficient offense, Spain is no longer the dominant force it once was, having lost some important players from its most successful generation and coming off an embarrassing elimination in the 2014 World Cup.
For the first time in quite a while, Spain won’t be the obvious favorite when it plays old rival Italy on Monday at Stade de France in one of the most anticipated matches of the round of 16 at Euro 2016.
“Spain has been our nemesis since 2008, which is when the period of their golden era started,” said Italy defender Giorgio Chiellini, who was on the team that lost to Spain in a penalty shootout in the Euro 2008 quarterfinals. “I like the word `revenge,’ but more than the word, we need to put it into practice.”
The last two times La Roja defeated the Italians in the European competition, it had a squad that included the likes of Xavi Hernandez, Xabi Alonso and an in-form Fernando Torres. Now its revamped team relies mostly on Andres Iniesta, who is one of five players from this year’s squad who played in both matches, along with Iker Casillas, Sergio Ramos, David Silva and Cesc Fabregas.
Gerard Pique, Jordi Alba, Sergio Busquets, Juanfran Torres and Pedro Rodriguez were in the team that reached the 2012 final, when Spain easily won 4-0 for its third consecutive major title. It had also won the World Cup two years earlier.
“We played one of the best games I can remember in that (2012) final,” Spain defender Jordi Alba said. “But it’s not going to be like that this time. They have three central defenders and two wingers who can create problems for us. It will be very difficult.”
Italy has four players left from 2008 Chiellini, Gianluigi Buffon, Andrea Barzagli and Daniele De Rossi. They also were in the team that played in the final four years ago, along with Leonardo Bonucci, Thiago Motta, Antonio Di Natale and Federico Balzaretti.
“We didn’t expect to meet Spain, but we knew we would have a very difficult last-16 tie whatever happened,” Chiellini said. “We know what to expect and we’ve got to be prepared.”
Italy, which also lost to Spain in a penalty shootout in the semifinals of the 2013 Confederations Cup, arrived in France written off by critics back home but got off to a good start by beating Belgium 2-0 and Sweden 1-0, quickly establishing itself as one of the title favorites. It lost to Ireland 1-0 in the final group game after resting many regular starters.
“Italy is very good on defense but it doesn’t mean that it plays defensively,” Spain coach Vicente Del Bosque said. “It had changes at midfield and it seems a more objective team than it was in 2012. I don’t see it as a defensive team even though that’s how it’s tagged.”
Spain also lost its final group game, 2-1 to Croatia, to drop to second place and set up the match against Italy. It had beaten the Czech Republic 1-0 and Turkey 3-0.
“We weren’t as good as people talked about before (the loss to Croatia) and we are not as bad now,” Spain striker Manuel “Nolito” Agudo said. “We have a good team. We don’t have to fear any team.”