Think of the two giants of southern European football, Italy and Spain, and your mind may wander back through some of the truly great, iconic players to have pulled on the blue of Italy or the red of Spain. From Rivera, Rossi and Pirlo to Butragueno, Raul and Iniesta, the roll call is a glittering and glorious one.
What hasn’t happened too frequently on the grandest of stages is a clash between the two. And yet when they do meet, the drama can be intense. For those whose memories stretch back to the World Cup of 1994 in the United States, the image of a bloodied and wronged Luis Enrique summed up the Spanish frustration in their quarter-final loss. On that day in Foxborough, Massachussetts, the sublime skills of Roberto Baggio – a genius at the peak of his powers – proved decisive in Italy’s controversial 2-1 win.
The tensions from that clash were still simmering some 18 years later when they faced each other again in the final of Euro 2012. The 4-0 demolition inflicted on the outclassed Azzurri by the Spanish masters was seen by the Spanish as suitable revenge for the pain and the wrongs of the 1994 defeat.
The two sides will meet again in World Cup qualifying for Russia 2018 in one of the more mouth-watering groups in the UEFA zone. Before that there is the small matter of Euro 2016 where both sides will be seeking to put disastrous World Cup campaigns in 2014 behind them as they rank among the favourites for Europe’s top international prize once again.
The two will be meeting in a tasty looking friendly match on 24th March in Udine which is certainly the pick of the day’s games in Europe. For both it is a chance to test themselves against a higher level of opposition than either faced during the qualification process – in footballing terms, a key step in their preparation for the summer’s shenanigans.
Italian coach Antonio Conte, who recently confirmed he will be leaving after the European Championship, has chosen two newcomers in their squad for this clash, with 22-year-old Fiorentina forward Federico Bernardeschi earning a call-up despite not troubling the scorers too often this season, while Mario Balotelli misses out. Also in for the first time is Napoli’s Brazilian-born midfielder Jorginho, who joins fellow Brazilian-born Thiago Motta of Paris Saint-Germain in the squad; his first selection since the 2014 World Cup.
Yet another Brazilian-born player, this time Spain’s Diego Costa, will miss out due to a lack of fitness, creating an opportunity for the veteran Athletic Bilbao striker Aritz Aduriz to earn his first national team call-up. But away from these new names, the usual suspects will be present for Spain.
While both sides are of course giants of international football, of the two it is only Spain that have been in consistent enough recent form to sit high in the We Global Football rankings. Their current 5th place compares very favourably with Italy’s 32nd. While Italy’s low position appears quite shocking at first glance, a look through their recent results gives some explanation.
Most recently, in November last year, Italy’s two friendly matches brought a draw and a loss, while their qualifying campaign for Euro 2016 saw repeated draws as Italy did just enough to pick up sufficient qualifying points. Spain, on the other hand have won all but three of their matches in the last 18 months (the time period used for the WGF rankings) The odd disappointment – notably in losing to Slovakia in European qualification – has been more than counteracted by the largely positive results.
While the rankings gap appears large, the more significant statistic is the rating score which isn’t quite so stark. A comparison of 99.43 against 97.74 leaves Spain favoured by at least a goal in this one, even after adjusting for Italy’s home advantage.