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Spain, Italy take unbeaten runs into semi-final laced with history

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LONDON: Luis Enrique thought for a couple of seconds, looked straight back at the questioner, and gave the curtest of replies.

“No,” said the Spain coach, with the blankest of looks on his face, after being asked if he had seen a better team than his at Euro 2020.

An answer out of blind loyalty? Perhaps.

Or was it the fact that Spain were the leading scorers at Euro 2020? Maybe.

Or the fact that La Roja are on an unbeaten streak stretching back to October, a run of 13 games? Quite possibly.

Spain’s opponents in the semi-finals on Tuesday might have something to say about all that.

Italy, another of the continents traditional powers, bring an even better run of form to Wembley Stadium a national-record 32 matches unbeaten, going all the way back to September 2018.

From the moment tenor Andrea Bocelli cleared the field at Stadio Olimpico after his stirring rendition of Nessun Dorma at the opening ceremony, making way for the start of the tournament, the Italians have been right on the money.

Three impressive wins in the group stage, without conceding. A gutsy victory over a better-than-expected Austria in the round of 16. The elimination of top-ranked Belgium in the quarter-finals.

Maybe Luis Enrique isnt aware, but Italy are rolling at the moment.

This might be a match between teams who have almost forgotten what it feels like to lose. Spain have only one defeat in their last 29 games but Italy look to have the edge, at both ends of the field.

Much has changed since Roberto Mancini took charge in May 2018, with the team having evolved into a high-energy unit that presses hard and attacks at pace. But the Azzurri’s defense needs little introduction.

Formidable centre-backs Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini are still holding the fort, like they have been for more than a decade, and Italy have conceded only two goals so far.

Spains defence, on the other hand, is a work in progress while centre-back Aymeric Laporte integrates following his switch of nationality from France.

In attack, striker Alvaro Morata continues to frustrate for Spain and Luis Enrique has seemingly yet to settle on his preferred wingers. Italy, though, have had strong and reliable performances from striker Ciro Immobile and wide forward Lorenzo Insigne, the scorer of the decisive second goal against Belgium.

It’s in midfield where Spain can seriously challenge Italy, potentially making it the department where the match could be won or lost. Jorginho, Nicola Barella and probably Marco Verratti for Italy versus Sergio Busquets, Pedri Gonzalez and Koke for Spain is a must-watch duel all by itself.

This is a fixture laced with history, not least for Luis Enrique, who was left with a broken nose by opponent Mauro Tassotti which went unpunished in a 1994 World Cup quarter-final defeat and to this day sparks feelings of injustice in Spain.

Spaniards have happier memories of their Euro 2008 quarter-final, when they prevailed on penalties after a goalless draw in their toughest game on their path to their first international trophy in 44 years.

They met again in the Euro 2012 final in arguably Spain’s best display in that glorious four-year cycle, winning 4-0 in a performance so dominant captain Iker Casillas pleaded with the referee to blow his whistle and put Italy out of their misery.

But the Italians would have their revenge four years later in the last 16 when a team fired up by Antonio Conte deservedly won 2-0 at the Stade de France to end Spain’s long period of continental hegemony.

But that win did not spark the revival Italy hoped and a 3-0 defeat to Spain in qualifying for the 2018 World Cup led to them missing out on international football’s biggest event for the first time since 1958.

It also provoked a deep identity crisis which led them to appoint Mancini.

Mancini has got the country falling back in love with the national team by overseeing some sparkling football and creating a real sense of unity demonstrated in the way they have celebrated every victory as if they had won a trophy.

“We are thriving on this occasion, we have made it this far and we are going to give absolutely everything in our power to make the Italian people proud of this Azzurri side,” Bonucci said on the eve of the game.

Spain’s path to the semi-finals has been less smooth, getting off to a croaky start with dull draws against Sweden and Poland before coming to life with a 5-0 win over Slovakia and a 5-3 win against Croatia after extra time.

Their quarter-final success over Switzerland on penalties was far less exciting but had the hallmarks of the shootout win over Italy 13 years ago and showcased the team spirit players and Luis Enrique have talked up throughout the tournament.

A win for Spain, with the youngest squad at the tournament, sets up the prospect of a third European Championship title in four editions and potentially the start of new period of success for a nation that dominated world football from 2008-12.

A win for Italy surely means Mancini’s team would enter the final as the favourites, no matter who wins the second semi-final match between England and Denmark.

Published in Dawn, July 6th, 2021

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