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Back both teams to score when Italy take on Spain in the first Nations League semi-final. That is what happened when these sides locked horns at Euro 2020, and both will fancy their chances of finding the net at the San Siro.
Pick: Both teams to score (-103)
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Italy’s absence from the 2018 World Cup was painful for a nation that is synonymous with that tournament. Only Brazil have hoisted the Jules Rimet trophy aloft more often than the Italians, but history alone is not enough to secure qualification for the quadrennial competition. A play-off defeat by Sweden condemned the Azzurri to a summer at home while other heavyweights of the sport traveled to Russia. Unsurprisingly Gian Piero Ventura, the manager who oversaw the non-qualification, soon found himself looking for another job.
Roberto Mancini was appointed in his stead, but many Italians felt it would be a long way back for the national team. Yet although plenty of column inches and airtime was dedicated to so-called shortcomings in youth development and tactical innovation, the debacle of missing out on 2018 was almost wholly attributable to Ventura. As they proved in the summer, Italy under a top-class manager are still a force to be reckoned well.
No one should seek to downplay the phenomenal job Mancini has done since taking the reins in May 2018. The former Inter and Manchester City head coach has brought modern principles to the side. The biggest compliment that can be paid to Mancini is that Italy under his guidance play like a high-level club team. That was evident at the European Championship, where a style of play based on possession and pressing took Italy all the way to the trophy.
The Nations League is not as significant a competition as the Euros, but Mancini has already made public his desire to win another piece of silverware for his country. “It would be amazing to win [the Nations League straight] after the European Championship and it would be amazing to qualify for the World Cup early, but it won’t be that easy,” he said this week.
Mancini also reserved high praise for Spain, describing them as Italy’s toughest opponent at Euro 2020. Indeed, Luis Enrique’s side were by no means inferior to the eventual champions in the semi-final between the pair at Wembley. Alvaro Morata’s equalizer cancelled out Federico Chiesa’s opening goal, and Spain were only knocked out on penalties.
La Roja grew into the tournament. A slow start saw them stuck on two points after two games, and putting the ball in the back of the net proved more problematic than it should have been. The absence of an elite center-forward threatened to hold Spain back, but they then went on to hit five past each of Slovakia and Croatia. Penalties were required to get past Switzerland, but the semi-final against Italy really could have gone either way – and from there, the ultimate prize was up for grabs.
Like their upcoming opponents in the Nations League, Spain would not look out of place in the Champions League. That is testament to the work of Luis Enrique, who has overcome the unique obstacles of international soccer to produce a cohesive, coordinated outfit. The squad does not lack for talent either, with Spanish supporters holding out particularly high hopes for Barcelona’s teenage duo, Pedri and Ansu Fati.
The latter did not play at Euro 2020 due to injury, and Spain missed the speed and direct running that he can provide. Luis Enrique has retained the underlying principles that brought Spain three trophies between 2008 and 2012, and he is now looking to marry them to a touch more pizzazz in the final third.
Italy are not only seeking silverware this week; they are also looking to extend an unbeaten run which now stretches back 38 games. That is a magnificent streak that illustrates how tough it is to get the better of Mancini’s men, who are easy on the eye but also resolute and gritty.
However, it is worth noting that their defense has not been quite so solid of late. Italy went 11 matches without conceding between November 2020 and June 2021, but Spain will note that they have since managed just two clean sheets in seven outings – and one of those was against Lithuania, who are currently below Turkmenistan and Equatorial Guinea in the FIFA World Rankings.
Spain will certainly fancy their chances of scoring on Wednesday, but they too will have their hands full dealing with an attack which is more than the sum of its parts. Ciro Immobile is absent through injury, but Italy still possesses plenty of firepower through the likes of Chiesa and Lorenzo Insigne.
It would not be a surprise to see another 1-1 between two sides who could not be separated after 120 minutes of soccer in July. Err on the side of caution, though, by backing both teams to score.
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|Italy vs Spain Information
|Italy vs Spain
|San Siro, Milan, Italy
|Wednesday, 6 October 2021, 14.45 PM EDT
|How to watch
Greg Lea is a freelance soccer journalist from London. He is the former editor of The Set Pieces, and has contributed to the Guardian, FourFourTwo, and ESPN. A Crystal Palace fan, he is a long-time subscriber to the belief that it's the taking part that counts. Email: [email protected]More info on Greg Lea
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