Italy raise the bar but Cesc Fabregas pops up to spare Spain's blushes

Spain 1 Italy 1

The PGE Arena

Before kick-off the announcers tried to encourage the stadium into Mexican waves. This was no kind of game for such fripperies. It was a meeting of the big beasts, the last two nations to win the World Cup. It was Ali v Frazier and at the end both were standing.

A side mired in corruption allegations might have been expected to have felt canvas on their face. The shipyards where Polish communism began to crumble lie a couple of tram stops from the Gdansk Arena, and those Italians who made their way to the stadium would have seen the billboards with their Solidarity slogans that read: "We Will Win Anyway." It was two-fingered and defiant, and probably summed up the mood in Cesare Prandelli's dressing room.

Two of their number had been implicated in a match-fixing scandal. Their form had been erratic, the team patched up to the extent that the Roma midfielder, Daniele De Rossi, was pressed into service as a centre-half against men who can pass it like no other in world football. Their captain, Gianluigi Buffon, had talked of fear mingling with anticipation as the world champions approached.

And yet Italy had carried off two World Cups in the teeth of corruption scandals. They did not win here but, against every expectation, they were the better team.

Compared with his opposite number, Vicente Del Bosque, Prandelli has won almost nothing as a manager but tactically he proved the better judge. However beautifully they had played to win the World and European Championship, Spain had needed a high-class centre-forward. In 2008, it was Fernando Torres, two years later it was David Villa. This time, the miner's son from Asturias was injured, and Torres spent all but the last 15 minutes on the bench.

When he did come on, there were still traces of rust on his lime-green boots. There was one moment when it seemed he might finish off the Italians as he had finished off Barcelona in the European Cup semi-final. Bursting through, he turned his marker and chipped Buffon – and looked up to see the ball drift over the bar. Had he started, his touch might have been different.

With an attacking force of three midfielders, Del Bosque's side were an elegant rapier without a point and until David Silva threaded a wonderfully-timed pass that allowed Cesc Fabregas to pull the game level, Italy, with five in midfield, carried width and far more of a threat.

Mostly it came from Antonio Cassano, who was stricken by heart problems on Milan's flight back from Rome in the autumn and ought logically to have played only a peripheral role in Euro 2012.

In one period of the first half, he drove a ball across the face of goal, had a shot half-spilled by Iker Casillas, who then pushed away a header from Thiago Motta, whose inclusion as a "plastic Italian" – he was born in Brazil – had brought down more ordure on Prandelli's head.

The Italy manager, however, does not suffer foolish decisions. Compared with Cassano, Mario Balotelli had not had much of a game, but now he won the ball and surged forward. There was an obvious square ball to his partner but instead he lingered, and was dispossessed by Sergio Ramos, one of nine members of Del Bosque's starting line-up to play for either Real Madrid or Barcelona.

Almost instantly, Balotelli was off, replaced by Antonio Di Natale and within minutes the Italians, deservedly, were ahead. Invariably when asked to name the player they feared most, Del Bosque's squad named Andrea Pirlo. Having been forced out of Milan, he went to Juventus and helped win them the Scudetto without losing a game; a revenge as icily cold as any exacted in the works of Machiavelli.

Now, he pushed through the kind of pass Di Natale would have dreamed of. The Udinese striker measured himself and drove the ball past Casillas, in front of the 6,000 who had come from Italy.

They had been vastly outnumbered by those from Spain. Early on, their singing had the confidence of champions with "Viva España" and then "tiki-taka, tiki-taka, hey hey" as a string of gorgeous passing led into one cul-de-sac after another. When Di Natale put Italy ahead, the big bass drum called El Bombo, which is carried everywhere among the Spanish fans, began its beat, and the chanting became more serious.

Then came Fabregas. Four years before, in Vienna, he had come of age in the Spanish side, putting away the decisive penalty in the shoot-out that sent his country into the semi-finals of Euro 2008 and sealed their first victory over Italy. He had commented then that the goal had seemed very small as he stepped up. In four years, it has grown in size considerably.

Match facts

Scorers. Spain: Fabregas 64. Italy: Di Natale 60.

Substitutes: Spain Jesus Navas (Silva, 65), Torres (Fabregas, 74). Italy Di Natale (Balotelli, 57), Giovinco (Cassano, 65), Nocerino (Motta, 90).

Booked: Spain Alba, Arbeloa, Torres. Italy Balotelli, Bonucci, Chiellini, Maggio.

Man of the match Iniesta. Match rating 7/10.

Possession: Spain 65% Italy 35%.

Attempts on target: Spain 9 Italy 6.

Referee V Kassai (Hungary).

Attendance 43,615.

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