Azzurri contra La Roja

Weird.

That was one word to describe the friendly between Italy and Spain, which was early this morning, Manila time.

It was weird because of more than a few things:

This was a different look for La Roja, with several of our key players in the starting XI not being called up due to injury. These included: Carles Puyol, Joan Capdevila, and Sergio Ramos (pretty much ¾ of the first unit for the backline defense), Cesc Fabregas (he, of the desperate, troubled, unkempt sort), and Xavi Hernandez (the midfield maestro). I told a couple of friends a few days before the match that I did not have a good feeling about it, and I hate it when my hunches were proven right. My hunches had something to do with the fact that the injury count was too high, and that the teams had spent a lot of time traveling days before the friendly (Barcelona had their U.S. tour, and Real Madrid came from a swingaround of Leicester-Guangzhou-Tianjin).

The dirty pitch seemed to have scraps of paper strewn all over it (c’mon, one of the reasons why football is called the beautiful game is because the pitch HAS to be perfect—this one looked like it had large chunks of dandruff peppering it). If the Italian defense can clean up nicely, whoever was in charge of the pitch certainly cannot.

Fernando Torres getting subbed early on, which was eventually revealed to be a concussion (Santa Madre Mía de Dios, I do not understand why there were a lot of cheers from folks on Twitter about Fernando Torres’ injury. The genuine Liverpool supporters I know have gotten over whatever negative feelings they’ve got for Torres [we moved on a long time ago with Suarez and Carroll, in case you haven’t figured those out], and the genuine Spain supporters I know continue to believe in El Niño [he made us believe over three years ago, and what he has achieved ranks high among fieles a La Roja]. As for the haters, you are sick people if you take delight in the player getting a concussion.

Spain was outplayed by Italy in the first half, or at least until Xabi Alonso scored off a penalty kick. The Spaniards could not get their rhythm on, left wide spaces for Italy to attack, and crumbled at the Italian defense (uh, five defenders to cover the lone striker should give you a good idea of how it went).

Apart from El Niño, Piqué also had to be substituted out of the match. Reports say he was feeling some discomfort prior to the match, but decided to play on. Another one on the injury list—and the Supercopa is days away! Now, if Cesc suits up for Barcelona, he’ll actually not be a benchwarmer—there’s an opportunity to play as center back!

So, how did it all play out?

Early onto the match, about the 11th minute, Riccardo Montolivo lifted the ball over an onrushing Iker Casillas, allowing Italy to draw first blood. Say what you want to say about San Iker, but he remains to be the best goalkeeper in the world. Italy had a couple more chances that he was able to save. I wouldn’t fault him for going out of his line—the man has been known to have an instinct as to where the opponents will go. Notice how even in the times he gets beaten, he actually is on the right direction.

As for Victor Valdes, who came in the second half, he made a good save once, but froze when Alberto Aquilani’s shot was deflected by Raul Albiol, which pretty much sealed the game for Italy well into the 85th minute. (Don’t get me wrong, I love Aquaman—but I would have much preferred he was wearing a red shirt!)

Was it a case of catenaccio beating out tiqui-taca? Well, if catenaccio is hinged on the assumption that the backline defense was well organized and highly effective, it wasn’t all that. Gigi Buffon was excellent at goal, which also meant Spain had a lot of attempts on goal that he saved (David Silva, in particular, was working his ass off for several shots). One in particular, had unlucky written over it—an attempt by Juanin Mata, which bounced off Fernando Llorente, who effectively acted as the line of defense prior to Buffon. Que pena!

Speaking of Llorente, he surely wasn’t at his best. I don’t know if the early substitution for Torres threw him off, but Floris was certainly sluggish, and when he could head the ball, he did not capitalize on such.  This is certainly quite a counterpoint to David Villa, who came on in the second half and made a splash with his shots on goal.

As for the defense, it was pretty much tested. Obviously, the Iraola-Piqué partnership still doesn’t work, and Italy capitalized on this.  Iraola was subbed in the second half by Thiago Alcantara (a bright spot in the futute of Spanish football), and Javi Martinez, who played the first half as a holding midfielder moved to the backline—yes, the future captain of Spain is quite a utility player. Let me also give credit to Alvaro Arbeloa, who was showing potential as a wingback.

And I am reserving the last of mentions for Xabi Alonso, the lone goalscorer for Spain, who was wearing the captain’s armband in the second half. The usual adjectives to describe Xabier (“flawless”, “classy”, “perfection”) came into mind when he calmly, coolly, and cleanly placed the ball right at the center of the goal, beating Gigi Buffon. (Yes, I was screaming “Te quiero mucho Xabi!” at 3 in the morning.)

So yes, it was weird all around. I’m not going to make excuses for Spain—they themselves have said that they lacked motivation for friendly matches. Credit to Italy for playing well and for playing like they’ve got something to prove.

I am purposely not resizing the Fernando Torres photo. I think his ass has more merits than his haters. 😉

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