Weakened by injury and chastened by the memory of a crushing loss to the same opponents 12 months ago, Italy have vowed to use their imagination when they meet Spain in today’s Confederations Cup semi-final.
The match at Fortaleza’s Estadio Castelao is a repeat of last year’s Euro Cup final, when Spain cruised to a 4-0 win to claim an unprecedented third consecutive major international title.
Having swept through the group phase at the Confederations Cup with three consecutive wins, the world and European champions were the favorites to advance to the final even before Italy was struck by injury problems.
Right-back Ignazio Abate and key striker Mario Balotelli have both been ruled out of the tournament, although midfielders Riccardo Montolivo and Andrea Pirlo are both expected to feature against Spain.
Pirlo missed Saturday’s 4-2 loss to Brazil with a calf injury, while Montolivo took a blow to the head in the same game, but both players have since resumed training.
Balotelli’s early departure from the tournament with a thigh injury is a heavy blow, the AC Milan striker having emerged in the plast 12 months as manager Cesare Prandelli’s most important attacking player.
Experienced Bologna striker Alberto Gilardino is in line to deputize.
In the expectation that Spain will dominate possession — as they habitually do — Prandelli has sad that Italy may have to do “something innovative” tactically.
Italian media reports suggest the former ACF Fiorentina manager will deploy a compact 3-5-2 formation, with an all-Juventus back three of Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli.
The system helped Italy stymie Spain in their opening match at Euro 2012, which ended in a 1-1 draw, and when Prandelli reverted to a four-man defense in the final, his team were swept aside.
Although the two teams remain similar in terms of both style and personnel to the sides that faced off at Kiev’s Olympic Stadium in the Ukraine, Spain defender Sergio Ramos said it does not necessarily follow that today’s game will produce a similar outcome.
“We’ve practically kept the same style of play and the same players, and so have they, so they’re fairly similar to us in that respect,” the Real Madrid center-back said.
“They have young players and veterans, and they’re extra motivated because they’re out for revenge. At stake is the final of an important competition, and everyone dreams of playing in a final at the [Estadio] Maracana,” Ramos said. “Italy have a very strong competitive mentality and have always shown that, despite their last result against us.”
Spain have concerns over Barcelona midfielder Cesc Fabregas and Valencia striker Roberto Soldado, both of whom had to go off due to muscle injuries in the 3-0 win over Nigeria on Sunday.
The two players trained apart from the rest of their colleagues during a training session in Fortaleza on Tuesday evening.
Spain manager Vicente del Bosque must also decide which of his three goalkeepers is most deserving of his faith, having allowed Iker Casillas, Pepe Reina and Victor Valdes to play a game each during the group phase.
Del Bosque’s team have not lost a competitive game since a shock defeat by Switzerland at the 2010 World Cup, but Italy midfielder Claudio Marchisio believes his side have the tools to undo them.
“They’re the strongest team, the [world and European] champions, who have won everything, but we’re not playing to lose,” the Juventus man said.
“We got to the final of the European Championship and we have the possibility to get to the final of the Confederations Cup, which is a big motivation,” Marchisio said. “Spain haven’t changed much. We know their style of play perfectly. We sometimes change our tactical system, but we always play in the same way.”
Spain are bidding to complete their collection of senior international titles, having previously claimed Olympic gold on home soil at the Barcelona Games in 1992.
The winners of today’s game will contest the final against either Uruguay or hosts Brazil, who faced off in Belo Horizonte yesterday.