Spain, Italy live up to billing with hard-fought draw

In the best contested match thus far, Italy and Spain battled to a 1-1 draw Sunday at the European championship in Gdansk, Poland.
Italy forward Antonio Di Natale, a second-half substitute, celebrates his goal against Spain Sunday at the Euro Cup in Gdansk, Poland. (Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

In the best contested match thus far, Italy and Spain battled to a 1-1 draw Sunday at the European championship in Gdansk, Poland.

Italian forward Antonio Di Natale opened the scoring in the second half, with midfielder Cesc Fabregas answering for Spain.

Main storyline

This Group C match pitted the defending European and World Cup champions from Spain against the vaunted Italian defence.

The billing lived up to hype as the Spaniards showed their incomparable ball possession skills, while Italy displayed its usual spectacular defensive prowess, particularly in the first 45 minutes.

After a slow progressing start, the action significantly picked up in the second half.

The ever temperamental Mario Balotelli blew his chance for the Italians, but his replacement Di Natale made no such error.

Balotelli let a golden opportunity get away in the 50th minute, waiting too long to shoot from close range before allowing defender Sergio Ramos clear the ball away.

Moments later, Italy coach Cesare Prandelli pulled Balotelli in favour of Di Natale. The move paid off immediately.

Di Natale raced free after taking a perfect pass from Andrea Pirlo and beat Spanish goalkeeper Iker Casillas in the 64th minute.

However, before the Italians could get comfortable with its one-goal lead, the European champions responded three minutes later.

David Silva sent a wonderful feed to Fabregas, who answered his critics by beating netminder Gianluigi Buffon.

There were some suggestions Fernando Torres should have started ahead of Fabregas, but Spain coach Vicente del Bosque won’t have to worry about being second-guessed on that strategy moving forward.

Torres did replace Fabregas and found himself in alone against Buffon in the 75th minute, but the Italian veteran stripped him of the ball before he could get a shot off.

Torres, who also received a yellow card, had another great chance to put Spain ahead, only to sail a shot over the Italian net.

Casillas and Buffon — two of the best goaltenders in the world — kept their teams in the game with several big saves.

Spain midfielders Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta were also threats throughout the match, but Italy played magnificent defence. Led by Daniele De Rossi, the Italians continually blocked shots, stripped attackers and cleared the ball out of harm’s way. 

Just llike they did during their 2006 World Cup title, the Italians weren't fazed by another widespead match-fixing scandal.

A week prior to arriving in Poland, police appeared at the Azzurri's training camp outside Florence to notify defender Domenico Criscito that he was under investigation. The Italian defender was then promptly cut from the squad.

What this result means

  • A draw is not a great result for either side, considering Croatia defeated Ireland in the other Group C match Sunday. Although both teams played well, they can't avoid a letdown against Croatia or Ireland. 

Man of the match

  • Like the match, it’s a draw. Both Di Natale and Fabregas were brilliant. Aside from scoring the only two goals, Di Natale and Fabregas generated several other chances.

The Italian perspective

  • "The thing that really disappoints us is that we allowed them to equalize very quickly. We were playing the world champions and we should have made them work harder to get back into the game. We gave Spain the chance to score goals. We need to improve, but that's our mentality." — Italy coach Cesare Prandelli.

The Spanish perspective

  • "I don't leave here frustrated because the effort we made to win this game was tremendous. It was a good game, a different kind of game. It was back-and-forth and the draw was the fair result." —  Spain coach Vicente del Bosque.

With files from The Associated Press