Spain will go into today’s Group C opener against old foes Italy with a swagger that was missing from past encounters, after a pivotal moment in their rivalry four years ago.
It is widely accepted that the moment the Spanish turned from underachievers into an all-conquering outfit was when Cesc Fabregas stroked in the decisive penalty in the Euro 2008 quarter-final shootout against the Italians.
Italy had been something of a bogey team for Spain until then, but four years later and with continental and world titles under their belts, Vicente del Bosque’s side now hold the upper hand.
“I think it changed the mentality of the national team,” central defender Gerard Pique, who was watching Euro 2008 on holiday in Majorca, told a news conference on Friday at Spain’s training base in Gniewino, Poland.
“Before Spain played to avoid losing, but afterwards they played to win,” the 25-year-old said.
Striker Fernando Llorente, who also watched the match in Vienna on TV from Spain, added: “It was a turning point.”
“Beating Italy and getting to the semi-finals made us believe in ourselves. After that, we knew we could win and do something historic,” he said.
Neither side has had the ideal preparation for this year’s edition, but it would still be a major surprise if either failed to get through a group that also features Croatia and Ireland.
Bidding to become the first nation to win back-to-back continental titles with a World Cup in between, Spain have lost record scorer David Villa and inspirational center-back Carlos Puyol to injury.
Villa’s likely replacement at center forward, Fernando Torres, is still recovering from a spectacular loss of form over the past 18 months, while the central defensive pairing of Pique and Sergio Ramos is relatively untested.
Meanwhile, Italy are mired in yet another domestic match-fixing scandal, that has deprived them of Domenico Criscito after the defender was placed under investigation by police.
The disruption appeared to have affected their form on the pitch as they slipped to a 3-0 reverse against Russia in their final warm-up game on June 1, a third straight friendly defeat under coach Cesare Prandelli.
“It’s normal to be worried,” midfielder Thiago Motta said on Thursday at Italy’s training base in Krakow.
“Three defeats, even in friendlies, is not normal for a team like us,” the former Barcelona player added.
However, Pique dismissed suggestions that Spain would have an easy ride against Italy because of their off-field woes.
“It seems that Italy is wounded, but I don’t see it like that,” he said. “In the past, it has often been the case that they have played best when they have been discounted.”
“We will have to be at 100 percent with all five senses focused on the game, as we are talking about one of the greats in Europe and the world,” he added.
The Barcelona defender picked out playmaker Andrea Pirlo as the key man for Italy, while also praising the goal-scoring ability of unpredictable striker Mario Balotelli.