Yes, it may have been “just a friendly,” but anytime you can claim a victory over the reigning world and European champions, it is something worthy of getting excited over. Italy’s 2-1 win at the Stadio San Nicola in Bari over Spain may not count in terms of any competition, but for new coach Cesare Prandelli this win brings a smile to his face and hope to fans of the Azzurri.
The Italians played the first half with some considerable style, something Prandelli has been working towards since taking over. Only minutes into the first half, fullback Domenico Criscito hammered a shot off the post which could have given Italy the lead. The move began when Riccardo Montolivo sprung Antonio Cassano into the attack and then the Italians completed a serious of quick, Barcelona-style one touch passes before Criscito released a thundering shot. It was a sign of things to come for Italy.
A few short minutes later, Italy deservingly hit the back of the net with a goal by Riccardo Montolivo. It was an impressive chip over the charging Iker Casillas.
Cassano and strike-partner Giuseppe Rossi impressed through the remainder of the first half, but Casillas was up to task. The Spanish goalkeeper managed to keep the ball out of his net and buy Spain time to get back into the game, which they did off an equalizing penalty kick in the 37th minute by Xavi Alonso.
The penalty was a result of a foul by Giorgio Chiellini on Fernando Llorente, who replaced the injured Fernando Torres after less than a quarter of an hour passed. Perhaps the foul was a bit soft, but it was poor defending by the Juventus center-back nonetheless.
The most impressive aspect of Italy’s game in the first half was how they showed no fear of the reigning world champions. Especially in the first thirty minutes, the Azzuri took the game to Spain, playing attractive attacking football, showing calm and confident possession and exciting creativity. The midfield pressed the Spaniards effectively, resulting in chance after chance.
Like most friendlies, the pace of the game in the second half slowed considerably and Italy’s play suffered as a result. Spain looked like the more dangerous team, but Italy’s defense held. In the 58th minute, Prandelli changed his attacking tandem, substituting Cassano and Rossi for Mario Balotelli and Giampaolo Pazzini, and the fluid threat of the first half abated slightly.
However, somewhat against the run of play, and with a touch of luck, Italy scored the winning goal. Liverpool’s Alberto Aquilani scored the go-ahead goal with a shot that was deflected into the net.
All-in-all Prandelli must be pleased with what he saw tonight. The team defended well, which should be expected from any Italian national side. But it was in the attack where Italy looked so fresh and attractive. The first half midfield of Andrea Pirlo, Daniele Di Rossi, Thiago Motta and Montolivo looked in control against a Spanish midfield that prides itself on unnerving opponents, while providing the opportunity for Rossi and Cassano to run Spain’s defense ragged.
In a game played between Spain and Italy, one would hardly expect the Azzurri to be the more attractive attacking team. But perhaps this is no longer the Italy of old. Perhaps this is now Prandelli’s Italy.