European champions Spain will face tournament hardened Italy in a repeat of the 2012 final.
There are very few times when two such big footballing nations get drawn together in the round of 16 at a major tournament, but it has happened at Euro 2016, and it promises to be a fascinating clash.
Spain’s late collapse against Croatia and Italy’s group topping antics have arranged what could be a mammoth clash between two of Europe’s biggest footballing nations.
Unexpected meeting in the knockout stages
The meeting is somewhat unexpected at the last-16 stage, as Italy were being written-off by more people than a visionally-impaired motorcyclist. Every tournament Italy seems to get written-off and more often than not they surprise people, just like in Euro 2012.
Italy have topped the group of death with a game to spare and they have been rewarded with a chance to avenge their defeat in the final and group stage of the said 2012 edition of this tournament.
Spain somehow snatched defeat from the jaws of victory against Croatia in their last group game. La Roja looked to be cruising to victory when Alvaro Morata opened the scoring on seven minutes.
However, Croatia worked their way back into the game with a goal from Nikola Kalinic and Ivan Perisic scored the winner with just three minutes remaining. The win for Ante Cacic’s side meant they topped the group.
It was by no means a smash and grab by Ivan Perisic and Co, they would argue that they deserved their win. Whether Croatia produced a good performance or Spain had an off-day is a bone of contention.
However the current Spanish team do not seem to have the same aura of invincibility that the 2012 winners had, with their disastrous display at the World Cup in 2014 no doubt a contributing factor.
Mixed performances from the European champions
La Roja may be double European champions, but there performances in France have been mixed so far. They dominated the game against Czech Republic, but needed a late winner from centre-back Gerard Pique to win 1-0.
Vicente del Bosque’s side easily defeated a poor Turkey side 3-0 in their second game. Maybe complacency set-in against Croatia following the early goal from Alvaro Morata and that is why they struggled to see the job through.
Real Madrid defender Sergio Ramos saw a penalty saved that could have changed the game completely, but opposition ‘keeper Danijel Subasic must be given credit for a very good stop.
The questions about Spain’s striking options may well have been answered by Morata, who now has three goals in the last two group games. The striker has been far from prolific for Juventus, but is highly-rated.
In fact the striker has been so impressive in Turin that Real Madrid have re-signed the forward after triggering a buy-back clause in his contract.
The striking issue may no longer be a priority, but La Roja’s overall performance may well be a concerning one for everybody connected with European champions. When they were in control they failed to make their advantage count and paid dearly for it.
The defeat was their first in the European Championship for 12 years, so I doubt many Spaniards are pressing the panic button just yet, but the defeat proved that the current team are slightly more vulnerable than their predecessors.
European champions could exit in the round of 16
Vicente del Bosque’s side are now the third favourites to win Euro 2016 at odds of 11/2, but it is realistic that the European champions could well exit the competition in the last-16.
Italy have not been the most entertaining in France, but the Azzurri have never really been famous for their entertainment value, more for their ability to grind out results and produce resilient defensive displays.
The current team is no different. What seems different about this team is that there is no stand-out player in Antonio Conte’s side. However, what they are is a group of very experienced and clever footballers. They are no frills, but they get the job done.
Conte proved during his time as Juventus boss that he is tactically astute and produces a well-drilled team. Spain will definitely now have to take the harder path to retaining the trophy and it may just prove one tournament too many for Vicente del Bosque’s side.
Can Spain overcome Italy in the last 16 of Euro 2016?