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Friday, July 19, 2024

Spain 1 Italy 0: Calafiori own goal settles ‘European Clasico’, Nico Williams shines

Meetings between Spain and Italy rarely disappoint and this one was no exception — even if it was an own goal that decided the contest.

Spain manager Luis de la Fuente described Thursday’s Euro 2024 Group B match as a “European Clasico” in the build-up, and his players certainly came out motivated to impress.

They completely dominated the first half, and Italy only went in level at half-time thanks to several key saves from goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma.

After the break, Spain’s luck changed and they finally found the goal they’d been pushing for when Italy defender Riccardo Calafiori turned into his own net after Donnarumma palmed out an Alvaro Morata header.

Defending champions Italy tried to respond but, in truth, the margin of defeat might have been greater — especially if Athletic Bilbao winger Nico Williams’ stunning curling strike from outside the box had gone in with 20 minutes to play. Instead, it hit the bar.

Victory sees Spain progress to the knockout stage as group winners, while for Italy it’s all to play for against Croatia on Monday.

Here, The Athletic’s Dermot Corrigan, Mark Carey and James Horncastle take us through the talking points of a pulsating encounter in Gelsenkirchen…

Were Spain really that good?

This was definitely the best that Spain have played since De la Fuente became national coach in December 2022, and arguably their best display since the Euro 2020 semi-final against Italy, or maybe even the Euro 2012 final, against Italy too.

De la Fuente’s side went on the attack from the first whistle, mixing direct running wingers Williams and Lamine Yamal, with incisive passing from midfield trio Pedri, Rodri and Fabian Ruiz. Williams’ dribbling especially was causing havoc every time he got on the ball, and everything seemed to be clicking perfectly for his team.

Yamal was a constant threat to Italy (Alex Gottschalk/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)

Spain had nine shots — four on target — before Italy managed their first effort at goal, a wild attempt from Federico Chiesa just before the break.

The one-way traffic continued after half-time, and Spain got to 11 efforts at goal without finding the net. Persistence paid off, though. Williams once again drove at right-back Giovanni Di Lorenzo, and they deserved the good fortune which saw slight touches from both Morata and Donnarumma before Calafiori could not help but knock the ball into his own goal.

The Spanish fans in Gelsenkirchen were loving it, with ‘ole’ cheers breaking out around the stands. The only slight concern was having so many shots and only scoring once. They finished with 20 shots, nine of which were on target.

But with qualification for the next round secured already, De la Fuente and his team were very satisfied with their night’s work.

Dermot Corrigan

How key was Donnarumma?

Some will focus on Donnarumma pushing Morata’s header into a helpless Calafiori’s path for Spain’s goal. But Italy would have gone behind much earlier if it weren’t for their skipper.

As the team in front of him were run ragged by Williams and Yamal, the 25-year-old Donnarumma kept things dignified. In stoppage time against Albania, his armpit denied Rey Manaj an equaliser. Donnarumma celebrated that save as if it were a goal. It clinched a curtain-raising win.

Donnarumma made numerous saves to deny Spain (David Inderlied/picture alliance via Getty Images)

On Thursday night, he had far more to do. And but for the goal — which Spain were long overdue looking at their expected goals — he offered a reminder of why he was named player of the tournament three years ago when Italy were crowned champions.

The Italy goalkeeper palmed Pedri’s early header over the bar. He tipped Fabian’s long-ranger behind for a corner and made sure Morata didn’t beat him at his near post after Yamal left three Italy players in his wake. Shortly after going behind, his strong wrist sent a Morata shot into the heavens.

His critics will seize on his part in Calafiori’s own goal as they did his uncertainty coming for crosses in Paris Saint-Germain”s Champions League tie with Barcelona. But without Donnarumma, a confidence-shaking defeat could have been a humiliating one.

James Horncastle

Pedri plays cat and mouse

There were battles all over the pitch in Gelsenkirchen, but one particular clash that caught the eye in the first half was between Italy’s Jorginho and Spain’s Pedri.

It started in the opening two minutes, as Pedri ghosted into the box after peeling off Jorginho with a simple shimmy to get on the end of a cross from Williams to head at goal — a chance he arguably should have scored from.

Italy initially set up with a 4-4-2 structure out of possession, but Pedri was drifting beautifully into pockets of space between Italy’s defensive and midfield lines, meaning the Italians switched to a 4-1-4-1 shape off the ball to account for the 21-year-old’s runs.

Pedri and Barella (ANP via Getty Images)

It was Jorginho whose head was on the swivel, ensuring he was rarely far away from Spain’s No 20. Pedri would often position himself in the blindspot of Jorginho and another simple shimmy in the first half saw him bear down on goal from a single pass played through midfield as he looked to create once more.

In return, Pedri would often stand on Jorginho when Italy were building out from the back, ensuring that Luciano Spalletti’s side did not have an easy method of working the ball through the centre of the pitch.

The game of cat and mouse only lasted the opening 45 minutes as Jorginho was taken off at half-time, with Bryan Cristante brought on to provide more of a physical presence and Nicolo Barella dropping into a deeper role — such was the danger that Pedri imposed upon Italy.

Mark Carey

Williams and Yamal are the two young exciting stars of this new-look Spanish team, and after Barcelona teenager Yamal made his mark against Croatia in the first game, tonight it was the Athletic player’s turn to shine.

Williams was into the action straight away, with a run and cross in the opening minutes which almost saw Pedri head Spain in front. Every time he picked up the ball, he went straight at his marker Di Lorenzo, often on the outside to cross, but sometimes cutting in to link with team-mates.

Williams’ performance was perhaps his best for Spain (Edith Geuppert – GES Sportfoto/Getty Images)

Italy coach Spalletti’s half-time changes were about trying to curb his influence, but it did not work. When Williams was double-marked, instead he played in left-back Marc Cucurella on the overlap, leading to another Spain chance.

It was fitting that yet another run and cross from Williams led to the opening goal — even if there was an element of fortune to how the ball ended up in the net. With a bit more luck, he would have ended up on the scoresheet himself, with a first-half header flying just wide and a thumping 20-yard curler rebounding off the woodwork in the second half.

It was a startling display from the 21-year-old, and if he can keep this form up during the tournament his €50million (£42m; $54m) release clause will look very tempting, especially to cash-rich Premier League clubs. But with more displays like this, Spain will also be serious contenders for this Euro trophy.

Dermot Corrigan

Spain’s take-on titans

Much has been said about Spain’s departure from their tiki-taka, death-by-passing approach of tournaments gone by, but when you have the directness and searing pace of Yamal and Williams on either flank, you can understand why.

Compared with their previous major tournament in the 2022 World Cup, Spain offer so much more directness and purpose in their attack with their willingness to take on their man and commit bodies with trickery and skill.

It was on show again on Thursday evening: Spain’s 29 attempted take-ons against Italy were more than any other game in World Cup 2022 or Euro 2020. This largely consisted of Spain getting the ball wide and crossing into dangerous areas, as they had numerous opportunities to punish Italy via such means.

It was that method of attack that led to the goal, with Williams causing more chaos, driving to the byline and crossing as Italy panicked themselves into an own goal from Calafiori.

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William’s 11 attempted take-ons were not just more than any other player on the night, but no player has registered more than the 21-year-old’s tally in a single game in the tournament so far. Add that to the fearlessness of Yamal on the opposite flank and the confidence of Pedri and Fabian Ruiz to drive forward in central areas, and this Spain side have evolved into a team of take-on titans.

Mark Carey

Who goes through?

In the headline match-up in the ‘group of death’, Spain secured top spot and qualification for the knockouts with this 1-0 win.

The result leaves the Italians needing a draw against Croatia in their final game to be sure of advancing. A defeat would move Croatia above Italy on four points.

Albania would also move on to four points if they beat Spain. If Albania and Croatia both finish on four points — as well as eliminating Italy —they would have to be separated by overall goal difference in the group, having drawn 2-2 in their match against each other.

The other side may qualify as a best-placed third-place team.

What next for Spain?

Monday, June 24: Albania, Dusseldorf, 8pm UK, 3pm ET

What next for Italy?

Monday, June 24: Croatia, Leipzig, 8pm UK, 3pm ET

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(Top photo: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images))

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