Monday, June 23, 2008

Euro 2008: Spain vs Italy (Q/F)

Cesc Fabregas spot-on as Spain defeat Italy to reach semi-finals
Jubilant Spanish Players after beating Italy 4-2 on penalties in Euro 2008 Cup Quarterfinals.
Full Time: 0-0; After Extra Time: 0-0, Spain won 4-2 on Penalties.
Vienna: If this had been a bullfight, the bull would have died of boredom but the footballing matadors of Spain finally claimed their prize deep into a clammy Austrian night.

As Cesc Fabregas' winning penalty sent Italians slumping to the turf in despair, rich emotions flooded through the Arsenal midfielder and his fellow Spaniards. June 22 will no longer be a day of dread from Madrid to Malaga, a day when Spanish fathers warn sons of their country's penalty hoodoo.

Three times, Spain had faced shoot-outs to decide quarter-finals on June 22. Three times, they had lost. Redemption arrived at the fourth attempt, addressing painful memories of spot-kick defeat to Belgium at the 1986 World Cup, even to England at Euro 96, and to Guus Hiddink's South Korea in the 2002 World Cup.

Hiddink's men again stand in their way, this time his free-flowing Russians in what could be a treat of a semi-final here at the Ernst Happel Stadium on Thursday. The Swiss have joked that much of the best football has been in their cantons, but Austria could have the last laugh.

Russia will be more persistently threatening than Italy, whose most accomplished contributors during the two-hour stalemate were Juventus colleagues: Gianluigi Buffon, the keeper blessed with such great reflexes, and the centre-half, Giorgio Chiellini, whose timing in the tackle was an art-form echoing the great tradition of obdurate Italian defending.

Buffon even saved a penalty, parrying away Daniel Guiza's effort, but he had no chance when Fabregas came in off a run-up that was more Caribbean quickie than Catalan footballer. A substitute here, whether Fabregas starts against the Russians remains to be seen but he contributed more than Xavi and Andres Iniesta.
Fabregas claimed the headlines but his Spanish team-mates were quick to mob Iker Casillas, who made fantastic saves from Daniele de Rossi and Antonio di Natale.

In a listless game, Spain deserved to record their first competitive success over the Azzurri since 1920. Buffon was far busier than Casillas. Chiellini's constant blocking and intercepting also kept David Villa, Fernando Torres and David Silva in check.

With Italy's demise following Holland's, the coffin lid has finally been nailed down on the Group of Death. For all their gutsy spirit, and the excellence of Buffon and Chiellini, the world champions have not entertained at Euro 2008 as Spain has.

All drums on the terraces and triangles in midfield, Spain looked the likelier to score during normal and extra-time but it was largely disappointing fare. In temperatures more suited to messing on about on the Med, Spain and Italy were never going to maintain the sort of high tempo Russia had done against Holland the previous evening.

For two hours, Spain tried and failed to break down a formidable barrier in Chiellini and Buffon. Silva, Valencia's clever little attacking midfielder, was first to show, unleashing a shot that took a deflection, looped up and was caught by Buffon.

With Manolo, the famous drummer who owns a bar outside Silva's Mestalla home, keeping up a percussive beat, Spain's fans were at their noisy best, although their singing was briefly laced with frustration as Iniesta was cautioned for poleaxing Fabio Grosso.

For all the bonhomie in the tunnel beforehand, with Antonio Cassano hugging all his former Real Madrid colleagues, the tackles flew in. Marcos Senna, patrolling deep midfield in Spain's 4-1-3-2 formation, soon clattered Cassano. Massimo Ambrosini then executed a magnificent challenge to dispossess Torres in the area, a real masterpiece of anticipation, but was then hugely fortunate to escape punishment for catching Villa on the ankle.

As the tournament's leading scorer had just entered the area, it was a foolish act. When De Rossi then smeared Villa across the Austrian turf, Valencia's much-coveted striker almost exacted revenge. After picking himself up, he dispatched a low free-kick which Buffon, anticipating well and diving to his left, clutched to his chest. Silva then unleashed a low shot which Buffon held. Close but no cigarillo.

Wary of the pacey Torres and Villa getting in behind them, Italy dropped deep. Their own threat was intermittent, partly because they lacked the passing gifts of the suspended Andrea Pirlo, and partly because Luca Toni was isolated for periods.

Cassano buzzed about in usual Cassano fashion, and his persistence almost paid midway through the first half. Collecting possession on the left, the Sampdoria forward lifted over a neat cross to Toni, whose header found only Carlos Marchena's shoulder.

Then controversy ensued, Grosso making slight contact with Silva's foot, but the Spaniard patently exaggerating the force with a huge dive that carried him into the box. If Silva had eschewed the theatrics, Herbert Fandel might have been less spectical.

Surprisingly, the stands were far from full, with spaces in the Italian end and some gaps in the Italian defence after the break. Only two terrific, last-ditch challenges by Chiellini thwarted Silva and then Torres.

The world champions showed their resilience, withstanding this pressure, and almost snatching the lead at the other end but Casillas saved well from Mauro Camoranesi.

Camoranesi was targeted for some pernicious attention, Silva and Senna hitting him with spiteful challenges. The tension drew further unpleasantness. Villa dived disgracefully, and was booked. Grosso shaped to head-butt Torres.As extra-time loomed, Senna let fly with two long-rangers, the first bringing a punched from Buffon, the second spinning out of his grasp and falling back on to the post. Italy seemed to be running down the clock to penalties. Mistake. The pain in Spain had stayed mainly on June 22. No longer.

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