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FIFA Confederations CupSpain's reign on trial against Italy in semifinals

Posted: Wednesday, June 26, 2013 | 06:21 PM

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Left to right, Spain defender Sergio Ramos, midfielder Xavi Hernandez, forward Roberto Soldado and forward David Villa during a training session on June 26, 2013. (Lluis Gene/AFP/Getty Images) Left to right, Spain defender Sergio Ramos, midfielder Xavi Hernandez, forward Roberto Soldado and forward David Villa during a training session on June 26, 2013. (Lluis Gene/AFP/Getty Images)

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Expect nothing new from Spain in their FIFA Confederations Cup semifinal match against Italy as the World Cup champions will bring football excellence to the field yet again, writes Nigel Reed.

Even when he's not playing, he's making headlines.
 
Like the rest of us, Mario Balotelli will watch the remainder of the FIFA Confederations Cup on television. He left Brazil on the weekend after a thigh muscle injury ruled him out of the rest of the tournament. Among his belongings, Balotelli may have taken home Italy's only hope of beating Spain.
 
The Milan striker can simply do things others cannot. Incredibly strong with a thunderous shot and an intimidating presence, Balotelli has all the tools to become a world class goal scorer. Perhaps we will see him fulfill all that potential at the World Cup next summer. For now he is just another nervous Italian spectator praying for deliverance.
 
Of course Italy can beat Spain. There is no such thing as a one horse race when there are only two competitors - unless one of the horses is named Tahiti. Indeed, Italy's challenge thus far at the Confederations Cup has not been scoring goals so much as keeping them out of their own net.
 
The Azzurri leaked 8 goals in its 3 group games and that is cause for major concern. Italian teams just don't do that. To put it in perspective, when Italy won the World Cup itself in 2006, it allowed just 2 goals in 7 matches and chalked up no less than 5 shut-outs in the process. Fabio Cannavaro isn't making a comeback anytime soon - he retired two years ago.
 
In fairness Italy has reached the semifinals, albeit the hard way. Cesare Prandelli's team did just enough to win its opener against Mexico and had enough experience and resilience to dig itself out of a deep hole against the Japanese. The loss to Brazil was not unexpected - especially in the absence of key midfielders Andrea Pirlo and Daniele de Rossi.
 
Their anticipated return will make a difference. Pirlo's vision and dead-ball brilliance combined with de Rossi's non-stop, box-to-box energy and no nonsense tackling will, at the very least, keep Spain honest. Both will be relatively fresh after sitting out the conclusion of round robin play and their comebacks will provide a much needed fillip for those around them.

Excellence on the field 
 
Spain will come with a game plan. Expect nothing new and you won't be surprised. It is a style which has redefined football excellence and brought La Roja unparalleled success. The trophy cabinet includes the 2012 European Championship - won less than a year ago in Kiev with a thumping 4-0 victory over Italy.
 
The personnel have hardly changed in the interim and coach Vicente del Bosque is ready to move onto the next available silverware. Del Bosque is likely to recall Iker Casillas in goal and Fernando Torres may be preferred to Roberto Soldado up front - but they are merely individual pieces in a jigsaw which fits together effortlessly with myriad combinations.
 
The world champion will start as clear favourite. With so much talent and so much depth it is difficult to see how Spain can lose. Four years ago we said exactly the same thing at exactly the same moment in exactly the same tournament. The USA duly shocked the world in 2009 beating Spain 2-0 in Bloemfontein.
 
Italy does not need a miracle. However it does need some help to pull this off. Should the Spaniards get casual again in possession, as they did against Nigeria, the Italians will have a realistic chance. Prandelli knows his players will have to hurry and hassle their opponents into mistakes to try and upset their usual silky rhythm.
 
Much easier said than done - but it is doable. Italy must press and press, then press some more since trying to out-football Spain will be an inevitable road to ruin. Let's remind ourselves Spain has no Plan B and usually doesn't need one. But if the Italians are prepared to work like dogs and force turnovers, an upset is by no means out of the question.
 
Balotelli's absence is a huge setback but the players have had time to prepare without him. Either Alberto Gilardino or Stephan El Shaarawy - maybe both - must take their chance. If Italy can steal one and then defend for its life, the Euro 2012 disaster would fade into the background a little sooner.
 
Spain has Italy's number. It proved it conclusively on Canada Day 2012 in Ukraine. The Spanish Armada is looking as strong as ever. But it is not unsinkable.

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