Hot topic: Italy and Spain meet again #ITAESP

Four years ago it was the final, tonight they face off in the last 16: Spain reporter Graham Hunter and our men in the Italy camp Ben Gladwell and Paolo Menicucci debate the game with Paul Saffer.

Italy and Spain fans at UEFA EURO 2012

Paul Saffer (@UEFAcomPaulS): Thanks, lads, for doing the chat. I'll start with Ben and Paolo, how did each of you feel when Croatia got that late goal which meant Italy would be facing Spain?

Paolo Menicucci, Italian-language Italy team reporter (@UEFAcomPaoloM): We had opposite reactions, honestly. I was devasted thinking: "Oh no, Spain again." Ben was more: "I think Spain will be easier than Croatia" ... Can you confirm, Ben?

Ben Gladwell, English-language Italy team reporter (@UEFAcomBenG): To be quite honest, I feel Italy may actually prefer to play Spain than Croatia. Croatia caused them a lot of problems in qualifying and they have plenty of players based in Serie A who will know a lot about the Italy players. When Croatia scored that goal to ensure Spain would be Italy's opponents, I was actually pleased.

Paul: Croatia might be slightly regretting that late goal now ... Graham, I'm guessing a 4-0 repeat isn't on the cards, but how do you see Italy as opponents for Spain?

Graham Hunter, Spain team reporter (@BumperGraham): I think this test bears zero relationship to the final four years ago

You could see in the last half-hour in the semi-final that Italy, particularly Pirlo, were very tired. Spain held an energy advantage. Plus, I'd really like to see Prandelli's passport. The anti-Italian Italy football coach. So attacking. Utterly different prospect now. Harder.

Paul: Quite agree – Italy, I didn't quite see coming four years ago even when they played Germany, this time they are a proper Azzurri side for me. To open it up, do any of you feel your side's defeat in the third game slowed any momentum?

Ben: I don't think it will make a difference for Italy, especially bearing in mind what happened four years ago and how often Antonio Conte has been stressing that he needs his players in an ideal physical condition as the tournament progresses.

It was a calculated rotation of his team [against Republic of Ireland] and the eight players who will return against Spain will not have lost any momentum from not playing in that Ireland defeat. In fact, I think they will be stronger for it.

Buffon relishing chance to make up for final defeat
Buffon ready to avenge 2012

Graham: Not slowed momentum. Shown a weakness. Spain remain a better side and a better squad than Italy, man for man. I've no doubt about that and I don't think Ben or Paolo do. But as sharp? As tough mentally? As physical? As streetwise?

I think these things were absent against Croatia and if they are absent again at the Stade de France, then Spain will lose. So momentum slowed, no. But a warning and if it's taken then it's to the benefit of the holders

Paolo: I think running is a key element for this Italy side. Emanuele Giaccherini and Marco Parolo were among the three players who covered the most distance in the first two games. And Italy as a team covered more distance than any other in the victory against Belgium. So some rest was more than welcome for a few players.

Ben: I think Graham's got it spot on there. Italy's strength is not the individuals but the team, especially the four at the back. Buffon, Barzagli, Bonucci and Chiellini give them solid foundations, and the team spirit will do the rest.

Paul: Croatia definitely caught Spain on the hop, especially by not folding when they conceded.

Maybe a boon for Italy now is not to be always looking to Pirlo to create something when they needed a spark but everyone having to chip in, great as Pirlo was/is.

Graham: I think that there was a theme, Paul. Croatia pressed Spain better than any team for a long, long time. Italy have the means to repeat that if they choose too. I like Paolo's point about Giaccherini and Parolo. I've spoken at length to Spain's players and their scouting staff and they think that the nub of the game is here.

Whether Italy's midfield can be industrious enough and shrewd enough to hurt Spain and make the job of the back three and Buffon easier ... or whether they miss the quality of Verratti and Marchisio and Candreva. Which is quite a burden of talent to lose.

On Ben's point, I spent a lot of time today talking to one of Vicente del Bosque's chief analysts and I liked his remark that Conte's got Italy playing like a club side. Not just the back three and Gigi Buffon, but throughout. That they have a shared attitude, mentality, belief, work ethic and there's an acceptance to be on the bench and be ready. This is tournament gold. I respect that.

Paul: It does help to have a spine built around one club of course, at the back anyway.

Graham: I think that if the champions are to go onwards there's a thing which doesn't get talked about enough. Spain want to play, they want to attack and they want to give a spectacle.

If they are sufficiently on form, careful with the ball, sufficiently hard-working and incisive, I still think they can beat any side on any given day. And entertain us all in the process.

Ben: Is team spirit, togetherness, belonging to a common goal enough to make up for the perceived differences in quality, though? Motivation does come into football to a huge extent, and both teams will have that in abundance.

Chiellini on facing former team-mate Morata
Chiellini on Juve old boy Morata

Graham: It's precisely what I thought was underestimated in Spain's UEFA EURO 2008 and 2010 FIFA World Cup wins

Paul: Witness Andrés Iniesta – clearly still motivated, enjoying being a leader, playing superbly, even if Croatia found a way to keep him quietish.

Paolo: I have been speaking with a few journalists at the camp – some even older than me – and nobody remember a group as united as this one. Obviously I agree with Graham about the talent of individual players. The difference is huge in comparison with Spain, but a united group can perform miracles sometimes.

Paul: I don't see Spain as disunited though. Not sure if that was a problem in Brazil, Graham, but that's not the impression I get having seen them twice.

Graham: I think that to answer your point about Andrés Iniesta, it's important to look back, not just forward. He's always been a different kind of midfielder than Xavi. More prone to making sprints forward, more involved in taking risks with passes and dribbles, more someone who's able to play in the final third of the pitch.

Which means that he feels the absence of Xavi, I think greatly, because while many will see Iniesta as the greatest Spanish player and a footballer who rarely gives the ball away he's simply more likely to be involved in situations of managed risk.

If he loses the ball or takes up a position high on the field, he doesn't have what Spain once had – Senna, Xavi, Alonso – adding protection and holding positions. This, I think, makes his task harder and his responsibility higher. If he's to lead this team to a win, here or in Paris in a couple of weeks, then the scale of that achievement will dwarf anything Spain's done before.

Paul: Just for a team to win four major tournaments out of five, regardless of whatever personnel changes there have been, is a feat I didn't think would ever happen.

Highlights: Italy v Spain down the years
Italy v Spain classics

Graham: Spain's unity, Spain's will to win, the mood, the behaviour, the jokes, the spirit are all at a very, very, very high level. It's not often that champion players will give you the copy narrative/headline that you want if you're Diario AS or Marca but here the players have voluntarily spoken about two things repeatedly: the good mood and spirit in the camp – and the evidence of our eyes on a daily basis supports this – and the need to remove the thorn in their side about the performance in Brazil. They really hate that memory

Paul: Gut reaction time – what do you think the result will be ?

Paolo: My prediction: Spain coming from behind to win 2-1 in extra time.

Ben: My prediction, though, is a 2-1 win for Italy, with extra time after a 1-1 draw.

Graham: I respect Italy and admit that they could win this. I say Spain, not out of loyalty but because I think they are mentally and physically ready for a torrid test.

Even if it's pens again I say that Spain go onwards and, I admit, I've thought that since after the Croatia game. But if Spain go out ... what a poetic way to end the run from Vienna in 2008 until now.

Paul: I've got a sneaky feeling for Spain which I can't rationalise. But not long to wait. Thanks all.