"All of the players were well below their normal level — all of them, from the first player to the last. We were almost trying to get rid of the ball. There was nervousness, timidity. We were not ourselves," fumed Spain coach Vicente Del Bosque after the 2014 World Cup exit.
That tournament marked the end of an era. The "soft" transition process had begun.
Heading into Euro 2016, however, fans were confused about what to expect from La Roja. The first two games, against Czech Republic and Turkey, gave hope that shades of the old Spain had surfaced. But then came the first stumble — a loss to Croatia. Not only was it a defeat, it guided Spain onto an accident-prone path.
Their defence, which had not conceded a goal for 734 minutes at European Championships, let the ball in twice against Croatia. These were worrying signs, but still there were positives to take away. They were considered Italy's bogey team and were about to face the Azzuri in the third straight Euro championships. In 2008 and 2012, they had sent Italy home, the latter a particularly comprehensive 4-0 mauling. They hadn't lost to the Azzurri in a major tournament since 1994.
However, on Monday, del Bosque's words post the World Cup exit could have been used to describe Spain once again. They put on an insipid display against Italy and were caught short of ideas. They were nervous, timid and clueless. In 2014, La Roja were outdone tactically by Netherlands and Chile, getting destroyed by counterattacking football. It's the same pattern Italy has used successfully at Euro 2016 as well. Antonio Conte's tactical genius had worked wonders against Belgium and Sweden. The general perception was that Italy, who possess a strong defence, would sit back deep and rely on the counter-attack against Spain.
Before the start of the match Conte had already sounded a warning. "We are not just the sacrificial lamb. Spain will have to beat us," he said. But it seemed like Spain paid no heed to his words. Italy started off in rampaging fashion. The rain lashed through Stadia de France and made it difficult for Spain to get their passing game going. Spain and del Bosque have relied on their tiki-taka game for a long time now, but they needed something different on Monday. The Azzurri though, adjusted according to conditions and played long balls and darted in crosses to increase the aerial threat.
They came close to scoring in the eighth minute, but Graziano Pellè's header from seven yards out was spectacularly saved by David de Gea. Italy kept building pressure and 16 minutes later, Marco Parolo headed one wide from 10 yards out off a Mattia de Sciglio cross after Leonardo Bonucci had sparked a dangerous counter-attack.
Spain were totally caught by surprise at Italy's approach. They looked like a clueless student in the examination hall who had mastered every book only to find questions out of syllabus. Italy pressed high giving Spain very little time on the ball. Nolito was nowhere to be seen. Alvaro Morata was blocked off. Spain had just one touch inside the box in the first 22 minutes. There were misplaced passes, very unlike Spain, and most importantly there was no direction.
Just like he did in the previous three matches, Sergio Ramos again looked very shaky, and that put added pressure on Gerard Pique. Ramos' itchiness was seen in the 33rd minute when the Real Madrid defender conceded a free-kick on the edge of the box by fouling Pelle from behind to stop a slick passing move. Eder smashed the free-kick low but it rebounded off de Gea's palms and Giorgio Chiellini charged inside the box to tap it in.
The way the goal was conceded was typical of Spain's sloppiness throughout the match. The foul was silly, the wall wasn't properly set up — in fact, while the free-kick was being taken, it seemed as if de Gea was still talking to his wall.
It could have been worse but for a top save from the 'keeper off an Emanuele Giaccherini shot from the left on the stroke of half-time. At one point, Italy had five men forward when on the attack. The match was won in the first half hour.
Iniesta, the biggest threat for Spain, didn't get anywhere near the 18-yard box in the first half. Spain completed just 210 passes in that period — their worst tally since 2008. They didn't create a single chance and failed to win a single tackle. The omnipresent Spain was nowhere. La Roja looked more lost than a drunk man that had fallen asleep on the train and woken up at the bus depot.
"I have never seen a Spain team like that before. It was almost unfair at times. What Italy is doing right now — it's how you should play a team like Spain. They have the tactics down to a tee," former France captain Thierry Henry told BBC at half-time.
There was hope of a turnaround in the second half, but Italy started from where they had left off. Spain were again on the back foot. They defended deep but Italy still found spaces, Giaccherini, Pelle and Eder all wreaking havoc while going forward. It was unusual, it was surprising and it was bamboozling to watch this Spain team defend deep.
There was one moment in the second half when Iniesta surged ahead but didn't find any option forward. He searched and searched but everything was stagnant. Spain were caught in an inertia and he finally had to pass it backwards. That moment perfectly encapsulated Spain's performance on the evening.
While the massacre was taking place at the other end, Spain had a couple of chances of their own. In the 49th minute, Morata was unmarked inside the box, but headed it straight to the 'keeper. Substitutes — Aritz Aduriz and Lucas Vasquez who replaced Nolito and Morata — injected temporary momentum. Aduriz found space on the edge of the box after Iniesta dummied an Alba cross, but the Celta Vigo striker shot wide of the near post.
The only time Spain looked threatening was in the 75th minute when Iniesta's volley was tipped over by Gigi Buffon and Pique's shot was saved seconds later. Spain dared getting forward; it was risky but they had no option. Throughout the match, they paid the price for not having a Plan B. Throughout the match, Spain were caught in a limbo — whether to attack or defend, wanting to go forward, but fearing Italy's counter-attacks. They ended up doing nothing.
Pique's volley from eight yards was saved on the stroke of full-time. It was in injury time when Italy pulled out their mastercard to kill the game off; a blistering counter-attack resulted in Pelle vollying into the net from close range to win it for the Azzurri. "In the first half, we were a bit timid and we didn't play with the bravery or decisiveness we had in other games," del Bosque said after the match. "In the second half, we played with a lot of risk, which meant we were caught on the counter-attack, but we tried until the end for the equaliser. We didn't score and for sure Italy played better," he added.
"When Italy need to come out with the ball, having three at the back and two wide players; they have five possible people to carry it out — which makes it difficult for Spain to press as they would like to," former Spanish midfielder Xavi Hernandez had told Gazzetta dello about why it would be difficult for Spain against Italy. "Playing with two strikers complicates things further forward, because it occupies both of our centre-backs and then one of the two full-backs has to step forward to close down (Antonio) Candreva or (Alessandro) Florenzi — leaving you with only three at the back. At the World Cup in Brazil, both Holland and Chile chose to use a 3-5- 2 against us and it put is in great difficulty," he explained.
And it was exactly the same story that played out again after two years. Conte pulled out another tactical masterclass to which Spain had no answer. For years, Italy were Spain's bogey team. They hadn't beaten the Azzurri in a competitive match in 74 years before the 2008 Euro quarter-finals. But then the roles reversed with Spain dominating.
Italy finally banished the ghosts of 2008 and 2012 exits in a thumping fashion on Monday evening. Spain's golden era started in 2008 and it might have ended at the hands of the same team against whom it began.
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Updated Date: Jun 28, 2016 11:17:19 IST