On a Thursday night overshadowed by the recent terrorist attacks in Belgium and the death of legendary player and coach Johan Cruyff, Spain met Italy in Udine in a friendly replay of the 2012 Euro final. While Bayern Munich's Javi Martinez continues to nurse injuries, Thiago Alcantara took the field for Spain in an even match that grew increasingly intense and interesting as it wore on.
Despite Spain's reputation as a possession team, it was Italy that controlled the ball in the opening minutes, forcing Spain to wait for a counter. Italy was the first to threaten a goal, as a cross by Candreva nearly found Pellè in Spain's penalty area. Soon afterward, Candreva sent David De Gea a long-range wake-up call, drawing a spectacular save from the Manchester United keeper. As Spain increased its possession, the two sides continued in a stalemate for the remainder of first half. Spain caught a glimmer of a chance off a key pass forwards from Morata to Aduriz, but a diving Buffon managed to clear the ball, and an offsides call killed the play. At the end of the first half, Italy had outshot Spain 5-0. The highlight of the half, incidentally, occurred not on the pitch, but just off it, as the line referee suddenly collided with wandering Spanish coach Vicente Del Bosque, knocking him to the ground. Del Bosque was no worse for wear.
Thiago seemed eager for action as the second half began, drawing a foul and shortly thereafter setting up Juanfran for a dangerous cross. Drawing fouls, unfortunately, was largely the extent of his contribution to Spain today. Italy, meanwhile, continued to win better goal-scoring opportunities: in a tense moment for Spain early in the half, Éder broke away with the ball and won possession again for a second chance thwarted by David De Gea. Italy's coordinated attacks then finally bore fruit when substitute Bernardeschi found Giachherini open deep on the left; Giaccherini crossed the ball perfectly to Insigne, who scored from the line past De Gea - the first goal Spain had conceded in 692 minutes.
Yet Italy's lead would hold for only two minutes: an unnecessary yellow card by Parolo awarded Spain a free kick within striking distance of Italy's goal. The kick found Morata lurking directly in front of Buffon. When Buffon failed to control Morata's ensuing header, Aduriz followed up and buried the ball in the top of the net from point-blank range. Spain had equalized, although on review, Morata and potentially two more Spanish players were offsides when the free kick was made. No offsides call was made. As successive waves of substitutes took to the pitch, both teams sought an elusive game-winning goal. But each squandered excellent opportunities with wide crosses and poorly placed shots as the second half came to a close. They would part with a draw, although Italy clearly had the best of Spain today.
1. Candreva and Insigne on the attack
Italy's Antonio Candreva is a legitimate threat on the right. The winger from Lazio repeatedly blew past Spain's defenders and used his pace and timing to make life difficult for Spanish centerbacks Ramos and Piqué. Candreva launched multiple crosses to teammates lurking before Spain's goal. Only a spectacular save by De Gea prevented a long-range shot on-target from going in. Teammate Lorenzo Insigne (Napoli) then took over the attack in the second half, constantly testing De Gea and harassing Spain's defense. Insigne's efforts would be rewarded with a beautifully orchestrated goal. Thus, while Candreva dominated the first half, teammate Insigne claimed the second.
2. Morata: Too much of a good thing?
In contrast to Italy, Spain's offense seems to rely entirely on Alvaro Morata. The lightning-fast striker, who recently seemed nearly unstoppable in Bayern Munich's Champions League rematch with Juventus Turin, was constantly involved in Spain's attacks, winning the ball or receiving it from teammates. He even could be seen dropping back and using his phenomenal speed on defense. But as Morata failed to slip past Italy's stubborn defense, none of his teammates seemed prepared to add to the threat he posed. Even on Spain's equalizing goal, the initial strike again came from Morata - but from an offsides position.
3. Wherefore Thiago?
Thiago's game was much quieter than he or Bayern fans would have liked. Thiago often struggled to break through Italy's midfield defense, coming up against Italy's Parolo and namesake Thiago Motta, while much of Spain's build-up play came from the wings. While Thiago was instrumental in shifting play from one side to the other and coordinating with the back line, he seemed isolated in the midfield and unable to find an opening to launch an attack. By far the lion's share of Spain's possession passed through Cesc Fábregas rather than Thiago. He was replaced by Isco in the 61st minute. Spain could clearly do more with Thiago.
4. The goalie of the future: De Gea
David De Gea's performance in goal today kept his side in the game - and made the man he has replaced, Iker Casillas, all but an afterthought. De Gea made several flying saves, including a crucial one late in the second half that prevented Italy's Insigne from scoring the go-ahead goal. De Gea made a full six saves for Spain today, which incidentally illustrates the threat that Italy's offense posed for their Spanish rivals, logging 11 shots total.
5. The goalie of the past: Buffon
On the other side of the pitch, however, the legendary Gigi Buffon seemed to betray his age (38). Spain managed a paltry three shots all game. While Buffon saved one and another was off target, the third was scored off a goal-tending error, albeit from what should have been an offsides position. When Morata headed down a free kick at Buffon's feet, the keeper failed to win control of the ball, which was then scored by Aduriz. Buffon looked shaky on his feet several times during the game, even allowing a pass to slip past him dangerously close to Italy's goal. While Spain have found a youthful replacement for their senior goalkeeper, Italy may need to look seriously for an alternative to the great Buffon.
Italy (1-1) Spain
Italy: Insigne (67')
Spain: Aduriz (71')
Italy: Motta (45'), Parolo (69')
Spain: Piqué (73'), Fabregas (82')
Italy XI: Buffon - Giaccherini (Antonelli 79'), Astori, Bonucci, Darmian, Florenzi (De Silvestri 89') - Éder (Insigne 51'), Motta, Parolo (Jorginho 89'), Candreva (Bernardeschi 60') - Pellè (Zaza 60')
Spain XI: De Gea - Azpilicueta, Ramos (Nacho 46'), Piqué, Juanfran (Jordi Alba 79') - Thiago (Isco 61'), José - Morata (Alcácer 86'), Fábregas, Mata (Koke 46') - Aduriz (David Silva 71')