Asked to rate Italy's performance against Spain, Andrea Pirlo gave the Azzurri a "seven out of ten" but who was he trying to kid? Considering they had lost their previous three matches, and been beaten 3-0 by Russia nine days earlier, few imagined the Italians capable of producing such an enlightening display against the European champions.
The most heartening aspect of Sunday's 1-1 Group C draw was not so much the result, great though that was, but the manner in which it was achieved. Cesare Prandelli had vowed his side would take the match to La Furia Roja and they were as good as his word. The Azzurri certainly rode their luck at times, but they also created several good chances of their own, and in terms of effort and commitment this was a 10/10 offering.
"It was the right result," said Prandelli, whose team took the lead through substitute Antonio Di Natale on 61 minutes before Cesc Fàbregas responded for Spain three minutes later. "We took the risk of being exposed to one-on-one situations because we didn't just want to contain them. Our only regret was conceding so soon after scoring, we could have managed those two or three minutes a lot better. But we played like a team tonight."
Spain unquestionably remain a majestic side, with Andrés Iniesta almost unplayable at times, yet Italy gave as good as they got, and Prandelli was rewarded for the bold decision to change his tactics. He fielded a debutant, nominally a winger, Emanuele Giaccherini, at left wing-back, and Daniele De Rossi, a midfielder, at the centre of a three-man defence.
Both played well but De Rossi interpreted his role like a seasoned sweeper, reading the play seamlessly, and making endless interventions to deny the swarming Spaniards. "I was a little worried about them playing without a recognised striker because there was no point of reference," he said, "but then playing against Fernando Torres when he came on wasn't much easier either because he is so strong and quick."
Pirlo, who set up Di Natale's goal with a pinpoint through ball, was also outstanding. Up front, Antonio Cassano and Mario Balotelli faded after a bright start, yet their replacements, Di Natale and Sebastian Giovinco, dovetailed superbly, which will give Prandelli food for thought for the next match against Croatia on Thursday.
Indeed, the Azzurri must focus quickly on Slaven Bilić's team because a second win for Croatia would almost certainly spell the end of Italy's tournament before it has even got going. And they would get 0/10 for that.
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