Monday, June 23, 2008

Spanish edge closer to Eldorado

The Spanish EURO 2008 cavalcade rides on after Luis Aragones' team hurdled world champions Italy 4-2 on penalties in Vienna.

With no score after extra-time, Italians Daniele De Rossi and Antonio Di Natale fluffed their spot-kicks, handing coach Roberto Donadoni an uncomfortable reminder of his own miss in the Italia '90 semi-final, as well as Azzurri exits on PKs in the 1994 and 1998 World Cups.

Like a hero embarked upon a mythical quest some say is foretold in the stars, La Selección proved itself once more invincible as it overcame its latest test on its road to glory. This year could be their year at long last, goes the general consensus.

This was a top-drawer clash of two titans, 22 technically proficient and tactically sound footballers who slugged it out for two hours with neither side declared the winner.

Scoreless but more engaging 0-0 than the Croatia v Turkey stalemate, this game looked too close to call from before kick-off, and in the end there was nothing to separate them bar the 11 metre scoring test.

The neutral might have channel-surfed in the hope of finding something more exciting, but such are the scraps thrown from the high table of European nations' soccer.

The opening sparring was much as expected – the elegant Spain wove pretty patterns while the muscular Italy stood tall and strong, soaking up the attacks while they sized up their enemy.

The first shot on goal came from Daniel Silva in the ninth minute, looping off Daniele de Rossi into Gianluigi Buffon's arms.
After passing the quarter hour without real danger, Italy began to force their way upfield, working the left flank in particular.
From there in the 19th minute, Massino Ambrosini found Simone Perrotta running into space but his free header was straight at Iker Casillas.

The clash of footballing cultures was evident. The Spanish as flamboyant as Picasso, the Italians as functional yet austere as the buildings in the EUR district of Rome.

Italy had their plan A all right- Frustrate the opposition and then quickly get the ball to Luca Toni, but no second outlet, while the Spanish danced tiki-taca towards their opponents, hoping to release their meandering front two of Fernando Torres and David Villa in on goal.

While the Liverpool volcano called Torres was once again lying dormant, Silva proved a wandering nuisance from the start for Italy, and dirtied Buffon's gloves twice in the space of eight minutes; first with a grasscutter of a set piece in the 24th and then a 20-yard drive from the left.

David Silva almost broke the deadlock in the 38th minute by darting between Ambrosini and Fabrio Grosso before rifling narrowly wide of the far post.
The Valencia star was the centre of attention three minutes before the break when the referee failed to call a foul as Gianluca Zambrotta impeded his progress, inciting cacophonous whistles from the Spanish support.

By half time, Spain had played the prettier football as expected, but Italy had held them at bay and still looked well able to score themselves.
Four minutes after the break, Silva almost bagged a wonder goal when he scooped up Christian Panucci's mis-clearance in the box and whirled through 360 degrees to avoid tackles, before Giorgio Chiellini thrust his leg into the way to stop him pulling the trigger.

Luis Aragones could not bear to watch - the Spanish coach had taken up a position behind the side of his dug-out, before a nosey UEFA official told him to retake his seat.
Roberto Donadoni was in the mood for change too, subbing the inexistant Simone Perrotta for Mauro Camoranesi in the 58th minute.

The incoming Juve midfielder almost scored within seconds of arriving following a Toni-induced melée in the area, but Casillas' left leg prevented his snapshot from handing Italy the lead.

The German referee had seen enough of David Villa going to ground at the first brush of an Italian shoe to book the Valencia marksman in the 71st minute.
With a quarter of an hour to go little had changed and the game seemed destined to end 0-0.
Spain flamencoed their way around the field but Italy's assured back line were giving no quarter, while still optimistic of launching a quick counter for Toni to pounce on at the other end.

With Spain's forwards firing blanks, midfield anchor Marcos Senna, one of La Selección's unsung stars, almost scored with a right foot curler, and a minute later Senna hit a dipping long-range shot which Buffon spilt and scrambled to gather after the ball came back off the post.

That double-play ended up the last Spanish chance to steal a 90-minute win, although Italy might yet have nicked it had Toni not stretched and miscontrolled a teasing Di Natale cross with six minutes to play, instead of leaving a clear run for his steaming-in colleague Gianluca Zambrotta.

Spain started extra-time still the aggressor. Two minutes in, Silva fired a long-range effort which whistled inches wide of the diving Buffon and his left hand post.
Then the Italians took their turn to threaten. Di Natale flicked a header from Zambrotta's right-wing cross and an alert Casillas tipped over.

'No parar hasta conquistar' (Don't stop til you've won it) proclaimed a long banner in the Spanish fans' curva, the prevailing Iberian leitmotif.
The long-awaited Alessandro Del Piero entered the frey in gladiatorial fashion in the 108th minute, the stage set for him to bag a famous winner, or at least in Donadoni's mind, convert a penalty successfully.

The shootout was hammering at the game's door, waiting to be let in, and it was indeed down to the 12-yard lottery once Santi Cazorla flashed his diagonal drive just wide of the goal in the game's last play.

Fortune smiled on the Spanish again as the shootout took place in front of their fans while they also got to take the first kick. Spain were 2-1 up when Casillas saved from De Rossi, before Senna made it 3-1.

Buffon saved from Daniel Guïza to keep Italy in touch at 2-3, before Casillas saved Italy's fourth kick, from Di Natale, leaving Cesc Fabregas to net and send Spain through to play Russia in the semi-final.

Both sides had spurned chances to win it over 120 minutes, and Italy had put up an impressive fight, after being deprived of their creative hub Andrea Pirlo, but if games were awarded for artistic impression, then the more creative team rightly triumphed in the end.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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