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Italy vs Spain: Euro 2020 semi-final preview

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Tuesday’s game is the biggest of Luis Enrique’s tenure. After everything they’ve been through, will his players respond?

Spain v Portugal - International Friendly Photo by Jose Breton/Pics Action/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Spain will look to reach a European Championship final for the third time in four attempts, when they face Italy in Tuesday’s mouth-watering semi-final. The winner of the Wembley clash will face either Denmark or England in Sunday’s final, again at Wembley. The journeys of both to the final four have been markedly different, with Spain now playing the unfamiliar role of underdogs. However, as Villarreal fans well know, form and favourite tags can count for very little when it comes to European finals.

Spain

This Spain side is an entirely different beast to those of the past. The ‘golden generation’ of 2008-2012 exerted total domination, nullifying practically all threat by keeping possession, restricting opponents to scraps and winning 1-0. The teams before them had plenty of experience and flashes of quality, but when the pressure came, they crumbled. Luis Enrique’s team is like neither.

While ball possession is still a priority, Spain are no longer in control. They surrender chances, and with a defence that has looked suspect on more than one occasion, they concede. Their defence has been breached five times at Euro 2020; at Euro 2008, 2012 and World Cup 2010 combined, the total was six.

But this side had real grit and resilience. They’ve silenced the whistles and jeers of their home fans in the opening two group games; they’ve overcome a last-minute collapse to beat Croatia in extra-time; and they’ve conquered their penalty hoodoo to see off Switzerland. To overcome such emotional, psychological and physical trauma shows immense character.

Italy will be their toughest opponent yet. The outcome will depend on which Spain turns up. After the swashbuckling attacking display against Croatia, Friday’s quarter-final against Switzerland felt a little underwhelming. Ferran Torres and Pablo Sarabia never really clicked, and while Alvaro Morata was excellent, no clear chances fell his way. The introductions of Dani Olmo, Mikel Oyarzabal and Gerard Moreno sparked the offensive back into life, but Gerard spurned countless opportunities to break the deadlock.

The midfield battle will be key, but if there are three ever-dependable midfielders in the world, then Spain have them. Pedri, Sergio Busquets and Koke have been lights-out in recent games, and are more than capable of winning the battle against Jorginho, Verratti and Barella. It’s likely that whoever controls the midfield will advance to Sunday’s final.

There are still questions to be asked defensively. Aymeric Laporte and Pau Torres did not look wholly comfortable as a centre-back partnership against Switzerland, a mix-up between the two gifting the Swiss their equaliser. More of the same against Italy, and it could be curtains.

Here’s what we think the XI will be:

The opponents

Italy go into this tie as favourites and rightly so. The Azzurri have won all five of their games at Euro 2020, scoring 11 goals and conceding only two. They have quality at every position, but more importantly than that, Roberto Mancini has engineered a machine that is greater than the sum of its parts.

The standout, and perhaps surprising for non-Calcio aficionados, feature of Italy’s team is the superb midfield trio of Jorginho, Verratti and Barella. Like Spain’s own triumvirate, they have been dominating games, with Jorginho pulling the strings from deep, Verratti putting in the hard yards and Barella playing like he’s just been plucked from Pep Guardiola’s 2011 Barcelona side. Unlike previous Italian teams, this one doesn’t defend and counter-attack. They love possession and quick transitions in equal measure, and possess a speed and directness in attack that’s long been missing. After years out in the cold, striker Ciro Immobile has found his shooting boots with two goals this tournament, while either side of him Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Chiesa have look dangerous whenever on the ball.

However, the Achilles tendon injury suffered by Leonardo Spinazzola against Belgium is a major blow for Italy. A left-back on paper, the AS Roma man has been the driving force behind much of his side’s attacking play, marauding up the flank an providing an extra body in midfield. Emerson will deputise, but he hardly offers the same threat. It’s one area that Luis Enrique will not need to worry about as much.

Prediction

Italy are favourites, but Spain have that never-say-die mentality. La Roja will win the midfield battle, but the defence won’t be strong enough to keep Italy out. 1-1 at full-time, an extra-time Gerard Moreno goal will seal a famous 2-1 win, and a date with destiny in the final.