Italian perspective: Paolo Bandini
No team would relish opening their tournament against the reigning world and European champions, but to borrow the words of one well-known Spanish manager: “I have to talk about facts”. These two teams have faced off six times at major international tournaments, and so far Spain have only won once – on penalties. In their three European Championship meetings, La Roja have never even scored.
Which is not to say you should stake your savings on Italy to keep a clean sheet (available at 4.10), of course. Italy manager Cesare Prandelli’s decision to switch to a three-man defence – a system he has never previously used with the national team – would have been bold enough even without the subsequent injury to a key member of that backline – Andrea Barzagli. Replacing him is Daniele De Rossi, a player who has played just a handful of games at centre-back and even then always in a four-man defence.
De Rossi has insisted he is not fazed by the task, but there is no question he will have plenty to do in a formation which is designed to soak up pressure before striking on the counter-attack. He was booked twice in his four appearances at centre-back for Roma this season and a bet on him to collect a yellow card on Sunday might not be a bad shout.
The other big concern for this Italy team, however, relates to their own attack. Prandelli is expected to start with Antonio Cassano and Mario Balotelli up front, but they have to date played together only twice – failing to score on either occasion. But if you were looking for value in the goalscorers market, Cassano might be your man. He scored six in 10 games for Italy during qualifying.
Score prediction: Italy 1-1 Spain
De Rossi to receive a yellow card at 2.8; Cassano to score at 5.0; final score 1-1 at 7.25.
Spanish perspective: Paul Wilkes
A fire was ignited this week due to surprisingly ill-timed words from the most experienced player within the squad. The feelings of Xavi were exposed to the media, with predictable dampening of the flames coming shortly after from various members of the camp. The offending concept was that, when Barcelona won La Liga, Real Madrid players did not congratulate the Catalan players to the same degree as the Barça men have done this year. Álvaro Arbeloa was the first to use the extinguisher: "We know the difference between being with our clubs and being with the national team," he said; "If we have our differences, we are here to sand them down."
A reported spat was also confirmed by manager Vicente Del Bosque between likely centre-back partners Gerard Piqué and Sergio Ramos. "If Piqué and Ramos do not get along, they'll be dropped," Del Bosque said. The war of El Clásico, then, shows sign of consuming the national team. (José Mourinho, incidentally, is currently rummaging through his garage for a larger fuel canister for next season).
A positive start will be required in this match to dispel any negativity, ensuring the rivalry doesn't undermine their campaign. The majority of the team picks itself: captain Iker Casillas in goal, the squabbling centre halves, Jordi Alba at left-back, the usual midfield trident of Xavi, Busquets and Xabi Alonso, with Andrés Iniesta operating in the inside left channel. It's likely that David Silva will take to the right wing in their orthodox 4-3-3. Arbeloa has been struggling with his back, so Atlético Madrid's Juanfran could make only his second appearance on the right side of the defence.
This just leaves the striker role, an issue on which Del Bosque has been keeping his cards close to his chest. We are still none the wiser whether he will opt for Fernando Torres, Álvaro Negredo or Fernando Llorente. Spain will embark on their version of 'Total Football', but it's chance conversion that will set them apart in tightly contested affair.
Score Prediction: Italy 0-1 Spain
Total Ball Possession (%) by Spain over (59.5) at 1.85; Spain to win 1-0 at 5.75; Spain to win at 1.70.