There is a natural Iberian rivalry between Spain and Portugal but the latter's defeat to Germany in the first Euro 2008 quarter-final was not greeted with any sense of joy by their bigger neighbour. Instead a feeling of foreboding spread from the Costas to the Asturias.
For many, Germany's defeat of nimbler, more attractive opponents was a terrible harbinger of Spain's likely fate in tomorrow's concluding quarter-final against Italy. Like Portugal, Spain are the in-form team. But, also like Portugal, they usually flatter to deceive. Meanwhile, their opponents – like Germany – have a habit of peaking at the right time, and the same ability to get results against the odds.
Adding to the sense of anxiety is Spain's ingrained inferiority complex when it comes to Italy, a feeling that, for all their own good play, the Azzurri's defensive game will win through. Unfortunately for Spain the results bear this out. Only once, in nine major tournaments, have Spain beaten their Mediterranean rivals, and that was in the Olympic Games 88 years ago. Since then, in the Olympics, the European Championships and at World Cups, Italy have had the edge, often controversially so. Though countries of similar size, with clubs of similar standing, Italy's achievements far outstrip Spain's. The Azzurri have won four World Cups and a European Championship. Spain have won the European Championship once, as hosts 44 years ago. Like England the quarter-final stage is usually their nemesis, they have only gone past it once in the World Cup, in 1950, and not in the European Championships since 1984.
Thus, after Luis Aragones' second string had beaten Greece on Wednesday night to take Group D with three straight wins, the mood was fearful rather than jubilant. The night before Italy had completed their escape from Group C and every Spaniard knew the old, one-sided rivalry, was about to be resumed.
"We must have a positive attitude and forget it is Italy," said Aragones. "We have to win and with positive thinking we will."
"It is a revealing line," said John Carlin, a Barcelona-based observer of the Spanish game. "They abhor the pragmatism of Italian football. They are constantly remarking on how much better their football is. They see football the same way as bull-fighting. It is about how you kill the bull, you have to do it with grace and a flourish, not just kill it. To them the Italians are the antithesis of that attitude. Yet Italy keep beating them and even now, when everything tells you they have the better team, a lot of people think they will again."
The players know the stakes, and the history. "This is the moment of truth," added the Liverpool midfielder Xabi Alonso. "We have faith in our own ability, but we are aware that Italy are world champions. Though they have started poorly their quality is beyond doubt and whenever they have to give their best they perform at a very high level.
"Traditionally, the Italians have difficulties in the group stages, but then they find their best form. This is how it was in the last World Cup, and in Spain in 1982 [when Italy also won the World Cup]." Alonso added: "I would have preferred another opponent, but we beat Italy in a friendly a few months ago."
That victory was one of nine in a row Aragones' side have compiled, equalling a record that dated back to 1927, and part of a 19-match unbeaten run going back to 2006. Nearly all the players involved in the 1-0 win in Elche in March are likely to feature in Vienna tomorrow with two notable exceptions being Italy's midfield axis, Andrea Pirlo and Gennaro Gattuso, who are suspended. Spain also have the advantage in preparation. Aragones has been able to rest almost all his starting line-up since Saturday which, he said, was important as "this competition is compressed into a few days. Players have to have a very good recuperation as they are getting drained as time goes by." But then, Portugal were well rested ahead of their quarter-final.
Spain have been preparing in their Alpine retreat outside Innsbruck. It is a location that should induce a sense of peace but, in recent days, the calm has been broken. Yesterday, in training, Carlos Marchena had to pull fellow defender Sergio Ramos aside after the Real Madrid defender had an angry confrontation with Aragones. Earlier in the week the coach, 69, had reprimanded the 22-year-old for being seen in a bar. Aragones also had to speak to Fernando Torres after the Liverpool striker refused to shake his hand after being substituted, for the third successive international, against Russia.
Any tension between the pair appears to have eased since Torres played the full 90 minutes against Sweden, especially as he scored his first international goal for nine months. Torres and David Villa now have five goals between them at Euro 2008 and their partnership, and the team's form, has silenced the campaign for the restoration of Raul. Though still a fine player the Real Madrid captain's form no longer warrants his inclusion, given the destabilising effect his brooding dressing room presence is believed to have. The old divisions between the players of Real Madrid and Barcelona, and between centrists and federalists, no longer seem as acute, perhaps because of the influence of the Premier League quintet whose travels will have broadened their perspective.
Yesterday Torres sounded extremely confident. "Spain are playing well, we are winning easily and we have a lot of alternatives," he said. "We expect to have the ball for long periods against Italy but we will have to be patient against them. Italy are a team we should respect, and given their past record they are the favourites, but although they may be favourites on paper we have absolutely no fear of them."
"I don't sense that any of the players doubt their ability to win this game," added Aragones. "We aren't hung-up on this. I don't think what has happened in the past will weigh on the players."
Maybe, maybe not. That six of Spain's last seven victories have come with goals scored in the last 15 minutes certainly speaks volumes for their self-belief. And yet, as Fabio Cannavaro said, "they beat us in a friendly – but it's different in a tournament like this." Italy's injured captain and defensive pillar, who plays for Real Madrid, added: "They might have more individual quality than us, but we're more of a team."
Christian Panucci, who has also played for Real Madrid, added: "I understand why Spain don't want to play Italy because the history of the Euros is not good for Spain. Italy have been more prepared for the big competitions."
Tomorrow evening the talking has to stop, but Spain will only win if they can also silence the little voice inside their heads, the one that says, as Ruben de la Red did this week, "they are the favourites as they have always beaten us". As Aragones said: "The psychological aspect is an important part of our work. A team that wants to beat Italy has to be convinced they can do it."
Italy (probable) (4-3-1-2): Buffon (Juventus); Zambrotta (Milan), Panucci (Roma), Chiellini (Juventus), Grosso (Lyons); De Rossi (Roma), Aquilani (Roma), Camoranesi (Juventus); Perotta (Roma); Cassano (Sampdoria), Toni (Bayern Munich).
Spain (probable) (4-4-2): Casillas (Real Madrid); Sergio Ramos (Real Madrid), Puyol (Barcelona), Marchena (Valencia), Capdevila (Villarreal); Iniesta (Barcelona), Xavi (Barcelona), Senna (Villarreal), Silva (Valencia); Torres (Liverpool), Villa (Valencia).
Referee: H Fandel (Germany)
Suspended: Italy Pirlo, Gattuso Spain None
Misses next match if booked: Spain Marchena, Guiza, Arbeloa Italy Chellini, Toni, De Rossi, Zambrotta.
Forza Italia Spain's long record of failure against the Azzurri
*Italy 2 Spain 1 (9 July 1994) Boston, World Cup quarter-final
Goals from the Baggios, Dino and Roberto (pictured below), cause Spain's downfall in a controversial quarter-final. Dino opened the scoring but Jose Luis Caminero levelled before Roberto struck the winner two minutes from time. The Spanish are still bitter about Luis Enrique having his nose broken by Mauro Tassotti's elbow at a corner.
*Italy 1 Spain 0 (14 June 1988) Frankfurt, European Championship
After opening Group One with a 3-2 over Denmark, the Spanish saw their hopes of reaching the semi-finals qualification severely dented by Gianluca Vialli's winner. They were then eliminated by the hosts. Italy were knocked out in the last four by the USSR.
*Italy 0 Spain 0 (12 June 1980) Milan, European Championship
An encouraging start to their Euro 80 campaign for Jose Santamaria's side against the hosts, but defeats to Belgium, who unexpectedly reached the final, and Ron Greenwood's England led to an early exit. Italy went on to finish fourth.
*Italy 1 Spain 0 (1 June 1934) Florence, World Cup second round (after a replay)
In the first game Luis Regueiro put Spain ahead but Giovanni Ferrari equalised despite what appeared to be a blatant foul on legendary Spanish goalkeeper Ricardo Zamora. The game went to extra-time but the sides could not be separated. A replay three days later took Italy to the semi-finals courtesy of a diving header from Giuseppe Meazza. The Azzurri went on to beat Austria and Czechoslovakia to lift their first World Cup.
*Italy 7 Spain 1 (4 June 1928) Amsterdam, Olympics (after a replay)
In the first game Adolfo Baloncieri earned Spain a replay in this quarter-final tie, his second-half equaliser cancelled out Italy's first-half strike from Zaldua Anabitarte. However, the Spanish where humiliated when the sides met in the replay, Italy racing into a 4-0 lead by half-time. Despite pulling one back through Yermo, Spain crashed 7-1.
*Italy 1 Spain 0 (25 May 1924) Paris, Olympics
Italy registered their first competitive win against Spain in the preliminary round of the Paris Games. A single goal was enough as Spain were denied a first-round tie with Luxembourg. The Italians reached the quarter-finals.
*Italy 0 Spain 2 (2 September 1920) Antwerp, Olympics
Two Felix Sesumaga goals took the Spanish to victory in the sides' first major tournament meeting. Francisco Bru's team went on to finish second in the competition. Italy were fifth.
*Total record. Played Nine
Spain: Won One
Italy: Won Five
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