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Buoyant Spain ready for Italian test
Mitch Phillips in Vienna | June 21, 2008 16:02 IST
Spain go into the Vienna match on a roll, looking to extend their unbeaten run to 20 games after winning all three group matches -- albeit with decreasing authority -- and with their first team raring to go after a week's rest.
In contrast, 2006 World Cup winners Italy limped over the line having been on the brink of an early exit against Romania after their introductory 3-0 thrashing by Netherlands.
But that all counts for nothing now as, apart from a couple of Italy suspensions, the teams start again with a clean slate.
Spain certainly will not be making any assumptions after so often looking the business in the group stage only to quickly fall away in the knockout rounds.
"This team have learned a lot since the World Cup," said midfielder Xabi Alonso in reference to their charge through the early stages in 2006 that ended abruptly with defeat by France [Images].
"We were a young side then and now we know what these competitions are like."
A team tagged as "perennial under-achievers" have looked good so far. Their neat-passing midfielders have created chance after chance for strikers David Villa [Images] and Fernando Torres, who took plenty of them in a 4-1 win over Russia [Images] and a last-gasp 2-1 success against Sweden.
The reserves then stepped in to beat Greece 2-1 in their final game.
Italy, who rounded off the group stage with a 2-0 win over France, make something of a habit of starting slowly but coming to the boil when it really matters.
GERMANY [Images]'S LEAD
Like Germany, who shrugged off a group stage defeat by Croatia to beat Group A winners Portugal on Thursday, Italy will wipe from their minds that Dutch drubbing and the Romania draw, when only Gianluigi Buffon's late penalty save kept them in the tournament.
Their pedigree demands that they reach the knockout stages and, unlike the nervous Spaniards who get nose bleeds at the mere mention of the last four, once there they settle comfortably and plan for the final.
The tough route in, however, has cost them heavily with suspensions for midfielders Gennaro Gattuso [Images] and Andrea Pirlo.
Experienced pair Massimo Ambrosini and Mauro Camoranesi should replace them and though neither has the relentless destructive appetite of Gattuso nor the class of Pirlo they are both more ambitious in getting forward.
Antonio Cassano is likely to start alongside Luca Toni up front but though it is not a pairing to strike fear into the heart of a top international defence, Toni does carry an aerial threat against a relatively small Spanish back four.
Italy's defence has sorely missed injured captain Fabio Cannavaro, for his organisation as much as his talent.
On Sunday, their reshuffled, makeshift rearguard will have be 100 per cent concentrated to deal with the movement and probing runs of Spain's midfield and attack.
Complete Coverage: Euro 2008