During the build-up to the tantalising Group C meeting of the last two FIFA World Cup winners a great deal has been made of Italy's bete noir status when it comes to playing Spain.
It is factually true that the Spaniards have not defeated Italy over 90 minutes in a competitive fixture since 1920 but it is also true that the Azzurri also represent Spain's 'Eureka' moment in modern international football. That came back in 2008 en route to Spain winning their first tournament since 1964, after they were paired with Italy in the quarter-finals and Vienna witnessed a night of sheer drama – and a rite of passage. Xabi Alonso suffered as a spectator on Luis Aragonés's bench that night but, as such, is a witness to events with a cool, analytical recall of what happened.
UEFA.com: Xabi, to what extent was that penalty shoot-out a turning point for Spain?
Alonso: We knew this would be a key game, because before 2008 we'd been eliminated in many quarter-finals or last-16 matches. We wanted to finally change that history, to finally be successful. Italy were reigning world champions, we knew how difficult it would be, we knew the Italian philosophy, and how competitive they are. It was a really hard match that we controlled and we created several chances but it went to a penalty shoot-out – finally luck was on our side and it was us who went through.
It became the moment when we all said 'this is the key match, our turning point'. It's when we believed we could become champions because it took a heavy burden off our backs, it freed us and became important for the next two years.
UEFA.com: Just how important is that psychological aspect?
Alonso: On that day, as I just mentioned, it set us free, and we said to ourselves, we've managed to get past them, and have every chance to make it into the final. And we really felt that that was the day we needed. It was the day where we had that extra bit of luck, because you need that extra little bit of luck to win a World Cup or a EURO.
UEFA.com: You won the UEFA Champions League in 2005 with Liverpool FC defeating an AC Milan side where Andrea Pirlo was your direct opponent as he might well be in Gdansk. Describe his game.
Alonso: I admire him a lot.
I respect that he has been playing at the top level for 14 years or so. He's a real reference point in modern football. Pirlo has great quality, vision, and outstanding passing skills. It's also about the way he behaves. And finally his switch from a splendid career at Milan to immediately becoming one of the key players at Juventus and winning the league. That gets all my admiration.
UEFA.com: Will you be able to beat Italy?
Alonso: The last time Spain beat Italy in an official match was in 1920 so that says it all. It will be very difficult and especially with all the problems and bad news there is going on around their team, that should make us even more careful. We know that if Italian teams have problems, that makes them even stronger.
UEFA.com: Do you carry extra pressure of expectation into the EURO given you've won the last two major international tournaments, or do you feel more relaxed because of your achievements?
Alonso: There are some unrealistic views.
We can win this EURO but the team could also be eliminated and go home. In football anything can happen. We saw that with France, for example, when they went to the World Cup in South Korea and were eliminated, or like Italy, when they were eliminated at the last EURO. Football is unpredictable, we see that all season long, we see it in the Champions League, in the domestic leagues – that is football. The script is never written beforehand, it always remains to be written.
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