Italy defeat Spain with new personnel and purpose

Italy’s 2-1 win over Spain in wind-swept Bari was something of a welcome relief for those itching for the return of competitive football and the opportunity to take pride in the Italian game.

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The Italian Super Cup between AC Milan and Inter had been played in Beijing in front of 70,000 Chinese tifosi who had come to witness the exploits of a Swede, a Cameroonian, assorted Argentines and Brazilians and a Dutchman.

That match may have swelled the bank balances of the respective clubs, pushed a few more shirts in the East and given the Lega Calcio a little ego boost, but back home there was an overwhelming sense of why wasn’t the Milan derby played in the San Siro?

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It may be the height of the holiday season but the Stadio San Nicola in the deep south of Bari was almost full, the provinces once again taking the Azzurri to their hearts – especially with local boy Antonio Cassano captaining the team, thanks to Gigi Buffon’s grand gesture to hand over the armband for one game at least. And of course there was the small matter of witnessing the World and European Champions in action.

Billed as a friendly in preparation for the return of the Euro 2012 qualifiers in September, it was anything but as Cesare Prandelli sent out his men with the remit of demonstrating that Italy had not fallen off the world football map; urged on by a very vocal crowd, they certainly answered the call.

Spain may have been without Xavi and Sergio Ramos and then lost Fernando Torres and Gerard Pique in the first half to injury but Prandelli’s game plan was always to push play high up the pitch and pressurise the visitors as deep as possible, with Daniele De Rossi given the task of marking Andrès Iniesta.

Fiorentina midfielder Riccardo Montolivo would have impressed Milan coach Massimiliano Allegri with his adeptness in supporting the diminutive front two of Cassano, who provided some sublime touches but gave the impression that he had yet to start pre-season training, and Villarreal's Giuseppe Rossi, who knew the opposition better than anyone.

All three were a constant nuisance in closing down the Spanish backline but it was Montolivo who really stood out in the first half with a beautifully chipped finish to open the scoring – and it can only be a matter of days before he exchanges the Viola for the Rossoneri.

Playing in front of De Rossi, Andrea Pirlo and Thiago Motta, Montolivo had space to dictate the pace of the game and the elegant playmaker’s quick thinking and instant movement of the ball opened up the defence on numerous occasions.

With four central midfielders on the pitch it was important that both full-backs offered support along the flanks. Napoli's Christian Maggio was converted from club winger to international right-back, and on the left Domenico Criscito really stood out.

A summer move to Luciano Spalletti’s Zenit St Petersburg from Genoa is a mark of the confidence the player has that leaving Serie A will have no ill effect on his international chances. Too right, as long as he continues to put in stirring displays like last night, where he rattled not only the post but also the Spanish right flank with non-stop running and a deft touch.

The bench also played their part, with Alberto Aquilani scoring the winner (albeit with a massive deflection) and Mario Balotelli almost adding a third, although the Manchester City striker still looked somewhat off the pace as a true international – and on this showing will have his work cut out to displace Rossi and Cassano for the upcoming qualifiers against the Faroe Islands and Slovenia.

With qualification for the Poland and Ukraine looking almost a formality – top of the group by four points and the Faroe Islands next up – a year on from Prandelli’s first game he is well aware that Italy is still a work in progress.

But a first win in 17 years (since USA ’94) over a traditional European rival, and one who have conquered the continent and the world in the last four years, demonstrates that there is a wind of change in the air and La Nazionale is set fair once again.