Italy emerged from a trough of pre-tournament gloom to slug out a 1-1 draw with holders Spain on Sunday thanks to a performance that suggests they are serious contenders.
Spain, on the other hand, may have to rethink their unusual strategy after the decision to start the match without a genuine striker almost backfired.
Seeking a European record 15th consecutive victory in competitive matches, Spain tied themselves in knots and fell behind on the hour to Antonio Di Natale’s strike.
At the end of a contest that took a while to ignite, but turned into an absorbing game, they were simply relieved to earn a point through Cesc Fabregas’ equalizer.
The Group C heavyweights will both fancy their chances of qualifying for the quarter-finals ahead of Croatia and the Republic of Ireland, but Italy manager Cesare Prandelli may sleep a little easier than his Spanish counterpart Vicente del Bosque.
While Italy shrugged off three successive friendly defeats and the match-fixing scandal back at home with a display of pride and passion in Gdansk’s spectacular amber-tinged stadium, Spain misfired.
Del Bosque’s gamble to start with no attacking focal point, favoring an attacking midfield trio of Fabregas, Andres Iniesta and David Silva in front of playmaker Xavi, was inconclusive.
The experienced coach finally released Fernando Torres from the bench with 15 minutes remaining and the Chelsea striker promptly wasted two gift-wrapped chances to earn Spain the victory.
That would have been harsh on Italy, who, despite having only a 40 percent share of possession, carved out enough chances to have won the 30th meeting between the two nations.
“We really tried to press the Spaniards from the start of their attacks and we tried to avoid one on ones, and for 60 or 70 minutes we played very well at the back,” Prandelli told reporters. “What disappoints me is that they equalized very quickly. We should have made them work harder to get back into the game.”
Del Bosque defended his bold tactics and praised Italy’s streetwise display.
“What we wanted to do was look for superiority in the midfield, and we know that Fabregas and Silva have the ability to get into scoring positions,” he said. “It didn’t work out too badly and Fabregas did some great work. He is a very special kind of midfielder. Italy had clear ideas and threw us off balance with some good switches of direction. They maintained a solid line and we didn’t find it easy to break through.”
With Daniele De Rossi playing out of position in defense and Emanuele Giaccherini making his debut, the omens did not look good for four-time world champions Italy, but they stifled Spain in the opening 45 minutes and enjoyed the best of the chances, most notably on the stroke of halftime when Thiago Motta’s close-range header was kept out by a reflex save by Spain goalkeeper Iker Casillas.
Fabregas, playing as the most advanced of Spain’s midfielders, nearly put his side ahead in a frantic start to the second half, forcing Gianluigi Buffon into his first meaningful save of the match as he clawed away a curling right-foot shot.
Mario Balotelli wasted a glorious chance for Italy, appearing to be running through quicksand as he advanced clumsily on goal having robbed Sergio Ramos.
He was substituted soon after and replacement Di Natale made a stunning impact, keeping cool to tuck the ball past Casillas after an astute pass by Andrea Pirlo.