As the last two World Cup winners faced off in Madrid last night, there was very little learnt about the respective teams’ prospects ahead of this summer in Brazil although Spain showed slight glimpses of the direction in which Vicente del Bosque wants to take the team through the ninety minute use of Spanish debutant Diego Costa.
Cesare Prandelli’s Italy team that started the match last evening was very much a team of experimentation. Very few of the names who will start against England in Manaus in June were picked for the starting line-up last night with the exceptions being Buffon, Barzagli and probably Marchisio. It was a team set up to show Prandelli his options, to see how individuals fared in the experienced coach’s system and the performance reflected this.
Spain on the other hand played what could be considered a first choice team, although it is rather hard not to when you consider the absolute wealth of talent at del Bosque’s disposal. However one thing which was evident was how the World Cup winning coach has introduced the in-form Diego Costa to the team. There was a lot of heated debate prior to his call-up about his history having played for Brazil though it now looks as if he will go to the World Cup in the country of his birth as a Spaniard.
This friendly was all about seeing how Spain coped with having a genuine striker in the team once more. Gone are the days of 2008 when the late Luis Aragones had Fernando Torres and David Villa in the side, 2012 saw Cesc Fabregas used as a false nine in the European Championships whilst the months since then have seen del Bosque try to incorporate various centre forwards into his system without success, for example Fernando Llorente and Roberto Soldado.
Diego Costa is different to Llorente in Soldado in that he fits in with the famed style of ‘tiki taka’ which has seen Spain as a national team become so successful since 2008. Costa is not a physical target man like Llorente but he has just as good if not better eye for goal. Costa is really the dream for del Bosque as he is essentially an extra technical midfielder whom also has the predatory eye for goal which we have seen in both Raul and Ruud van Nistelrooy.
In Madrid last night we saw Spain slowly getting to grips with having Costa as the frontman, there were significantly more crosses worked into the box from Pedro and Jordi Alba with Costa in the middle to aim at, and this is the key notion for del Bosque’s decision to bring Costa in. He offers different options but doesn’t stray too far from the mould of Spain’s success like Llorente and Soldado do, it is the perfect example of trying to develop a team and further their success rather than changing the previous approach.
Despite having very few chances at Gianluigi Buffon’s goal Diego Costa’s running in between the lines was excellent and it often took away an Italian defender which in turn left a slight gap for Pedro to run into, or Iniesta to run into and this only furthered the challenges for a side defending against an already superhumanly fluid forward line.
It will have been difficult for Cesare Prandelli to gain anything from last night. There was a lot of discussion prior to kick-off about Prandelli’s unease about facing Spain in a friendly. The Italian coach was rumored to want to face another team as playing Spain would open both him and his team up to unfair criticism and speculation in the Italian press. As such Prandelli stuck to his exploratory line-up with very few players standing up to be counted and really putting their hands up for a starting place in Manaus although the debutant, Argentine born Gabriel Paletta, formerly of Liverpool, had an excellent game at centre half.
Paletta showed a real desire for defending and put in a number of important challenges which kept Costa and Iniesta at bay throughout the evening however with Andrea Barzagli and Giorgio Chiellini likely to be locked into Prandelli’s first choice eleven it appears difficult to see how Paletta could fit in. However should Italy look to return to a three at the back formation, which they used sparingly in Ukraine and Poland during the most recent European Championships, there could be a spot for Paletta there with Daniele de Rossi not having to drop into his unfavored defensive role.
Alessio Cerci also impressed in parts including a quick run on the right hand side in the first half before hitting the cross-bar with a cross cum shot but you feel the Torino playmaker didn’t do enough to really impress Prandelli.
One concrete point to take from this match was how Italy may struggle going forward once the World Cup is over. We know Andrea Pirlo will bring the curtain down on his international career once Italy’s involvement in the Brazilian showpiece is over and it doesn’t look as if there is a player who can come straight in and take the reins. It seems odd how one player can be so crucial to a team but Pirlo has been the heartbeat of the Italian team since Prandelli took over and the team’s progress in the two summer tournaments since then has been largely Pirlo influenced.
We saw just how far Italy could push Spain in the semi-final of last summer’s Confederations Cup with Pirlo dictating the tempo from his holding midfield role yet conversely we saw how abject and out of ideas the Italians could look without Pirlo against Brazil in the group stage. Yesterday evening we saw a similar level of difficulty for the Italian’s without Pirlo yet whilst it may be unfair to judge on last night’s display with an experimental eleven put out, there was definite cause for concern.
Italy to their credit tried to play the ball out from the back but were hemmed into their own penalty area by Spain’s fantastically energetic pressing style. Without Pirlo there was no get out of jail free card if you will, there was nobody who could just be given the ball and then find a way to open the door between defense and attack. Thiago Motta tried but didn’t have the quality and with the rumors about Cesare Prandelli’s desire return to club management after the World Cup, it wouldn’t be at all a surprise if the former Parma coach walked away from the Azzurri having done an excellent job but not quite confident in how the team can improve without Pirlo.
In the end, it was a friendly match with just one goal that told us very little about either team. Yes, we saw Spain making small steps of progress ahead of their journey to Brazil with Diego Costa beginning to show signs of good linkup with the likes of Iniesta and Fabregas. However with Italy, it was a friendly that maybe they could have done without as Prandelli won’t have learnt anything particularly new about his side ahead of the World Cup.