Italy has killed the Spanish football beast it helped create

One wouldn’t want to meet Antonio Conte in a dark alley on a dark night, writes John Leicester.

Italy has killed the Spanish football beast it helped create

When Italy lost to Spain in the European Championship quarter-finals in 2008, the victory helped turn a golden generation of Spanish players into world beaters.

It was the first victory for Spain over Italy in a major competition in 88 years — since the 1920 Olympics.

Getting that monkey off their back helped fill the likes of Cesc Fabregas, Andres Iniesta and Sergio Ramos with self-belief.

And with it they wrote football history: From 2008-2012, through two consecutive European Championships and the 2010 World Cup, Spain was the undisputed king of the football world.

The king is dead, the reign ended by the same team that helped kick it off: Italy.

Its 2-0 victory on Monday, which could have been 3-0 or 4-0 without Spanish ‘keeper David De Gea’s acrobatic saves, put Spain out of Euro 2016 and brought the saga full circle, with Italy now back on top.

Of the Spanish team that burned so brightly in 2012, beating Italy 4-0 in the most one-sided final in European Championship history, there were just embers on the Stade de France pitch soaked by a rain-deluge at kick-off.

Italy didn’t just beat Spain, it snuffed out what remains of the greatest collection of footballing talent assembled by any nation in a generation.

Fabregas, who scored the winning penalty in the quarter-final shoot-out against Italy in 2008, was transparent.

Iniesta, scorer of the winning goal in the 2010 World Cup final against the Netherlands, was hounded off the ball, given precious little time and space by Italian pursuers.

And Spanish coach Vicente Del Bosque ran fresh out of ideas against Antonio Conte, his managerial rival who paced the touchline like a caged tiger and showed he has one of the sharpest coaching minds in the business by enforcing his discipline on a team of players who will be underrated no longer.

One wouldn’t want to meet Conte in a dark alley on a dark night.

The fury and energy the future manager of Chelsea oozes on the touchline, constantly directing his players with bawls and flaying arms like a bad-tempered traffic cop, will make him an unmissable spectacle in the Premier League next season.

His temper boiled over when Emanuele Giaccherini lost the ball in front of him.

Conte hoofed the ball away and got an immediate telling-off from Turkish referee Cuneyt Cakir.

To call this seismic victory just another triumph for defensive-minded Italian football would be like describing Leonardo da Vinci as a fairly bright guy. It wouldn’t do any justice to either Conte or the players who so perfectly executed his cunning plan.

“The players have something important inside them, out of the ordinary,” said Conte, who was in the starting line-up when Italy beat Spain 2-1 in a fiery quarter-final at the 1994 World Cup.

“We have proved Italy is not just catenaccio.”

Up front, the combination of big, bruising Graziano Pelle and swift little wriggler Eder acted like a one-two punch, giving Italy attacking options against the dearth of Spanish ideas.

By weighing on the Spanish defence, they pinned back Sergio Busquets and made Spanish minds think twice about venturing forward. When De Gea kept out Pelle’s early header with a one-handed save, Conte span around in anguish, water spraying off his rain coat and cap. It was a foretaste of more attacks to come.

With twisting, fast runs from the left and midfield, Giaccherini quickly exposed the Spanish defense as slow and flat-footed.

His Eden Hazard-like qualities belie the idea that this Italy team lacks creative attacking threat. And on both flanks, Conte allowed Alessandro Florenzi and Mattia De Sciglio to tear up and down — just so long as they also dropped back in defense to turn the Italian back three into a back five when Spain had the ball.

The disciplined football was possible because the Azzurri have embraced a club culture, Conte said.

“I’ve always said since I took over that the only route forward to achieve some semblance of success, was to try to be a club,” he said. “To try to be a team who play a league season.

“There is no point in hiding the fact that it’s not the rosiest period in terms of football talent for Italy so we need to be a team from every perspective.”

Conte may have a midfield problems against Germany, however, since Daniele De Rossi sustained a hip injury and his replacement Thiago Motta, picked up a yellow card and will be suspended.

Man-of-the-match against Spain, Leonardo Bonucci added: “We found a national team that has no top talents and we had to create a team, with a game plan, and Conte has been our leader.”

Spain’s collapse at the 2014 World Cup had already felt like the possible beginning of the end. But this end against Italy, because it was so unequivocal, marked the beginning of a new era.

BallTalk: Mike Sheehan and Steve Neville look ahead to the Euro 2016 quarter-finals and ask will there be any more shocks.

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