There is always an edge to matches between the Spanish and the Italians, and football is only part of it.
From the Romans to the Bourbons, the two peoples occupied each other’s territory. There are Roman ruins across most of Spain and Spanish palaces and fortresses across half of Italy. They’ve been allies and rivals in everything from building cars to producing olive oil: even the lamb for Easter lunch can be an issue (Spanish meat is cheaper but the Italians say it’s not as good).
In football, however, the Spanish are clearly in the ascendant. Italy’s shock win in the last 16 stage at Euro 2016 looks increasingly like a blip. The Spanish are among the favourites for the World Cup this summer, the Italians will be watching from home. There is simply no comparison between the two national sides, above all in the quality of the young players coming through.
So the four matches this week and next have become a real challenge for Italian football to show that it can still compete at club level.
On paper — and on the pitch — Barcelona look far too strong for Roma. Tomorrow night’s game in Camp Nou is a huge test for the Italian side, who lost 6-1 the last time they visited Catalonia.
Barcelona no longer seem as intimidating at home — they were fortunate not to concede twice against Chelsea — but they beat Juventus comfortably in the group stage. The key man for Roma will surely be their Brazilian goalkeeper, Alisson, who performed miracles in their group stage home game against Atletico Madrid.
Barcelona looked poor for virtually the entire match against Sevilla at the weekend, but ominously for the Italians Lionel Messi then came off the bench and turned the game on its head, securing a 2-2 draw with a stunning strike in the dying minutes.
Barcelona are “a disaster without Messi” said Madrid sports paper Marca yesterday — pointing to the way they have struggled in his absence this season against sides such as Espanyol and Celta Vigo. That’s an exaggeration, but he continues to give his team a special edge, above all in big games.
“Everyone says we’re not the favourites and that’s the truth,” said Roma striker Stephan El Sharaawy at the weekend. “However, nobody gave us much of a chance of getting out of the group so we’ve got to forget about what people think.”
Juventus against Real Madrid is a different sort of occasion. These are historic rivals and surprisingly evenly-matched over the years: of their 19 matches Madrid have won nine, Juventus eight and they’ve each scored 22 goals.
Most of those results have no bearing at all on tonight’s game, and Real Madrid triumphed in the big one, in Cardiff last year, when Juve manager Max Allegri lost his bearings tactically and the Italians fell away after half-time.
Yet Juve’s success in the 2015 semi-final shows how effective they can be over two legs. As demonstrated again at Wembley against Tottenham in the last round they still have that resilience, and they also have a genuine match-winner in Paulo Dybala, now seemingly back to his best.
This first leg may turn on him grabbing a goal. The worry for Allegri is that Juve’s defence is no longer what it was, especially against players with the pace and trickery of Isco and Sergio Asensio.
Perhaps it is overdoing it to say that the next week will define the pecking order at the top level of European football, but it feels like a moment of truth.
For a long time the Italians were able to claim that Spanish players performed well in their own league but were not up to the rigours of Serie A. And with the outstanding exception of Luis Suarez, who won three titles and two European Cups with Inter, they seemed to be right.
That’s changed over the past few years. The big Spanish stars have not been tested in Italy, but others such as Borja Valero, Cristian Tello, and Alvaro Morata have all made their mark. For the first time, the Spanish presence in Serie A has grown significantly.
The Italian presence in La Liga has also never been that strong, although there were exceptions such as Christian Vieri — top scorer in Spain in his one season at Atletico — and Amedeo Carboni, a pillar in defence for the Valencia side that reached two consecutive Champions League finals.
Where the Italians had the edge was with their managers. Fabio Capello won the title twice with Madrid, Carlo Ancelotti took them to that historic 10th European crown. There has been very little movement the other way.
So Italy lacks the players to compete but retains a reputation for tactical and coaching superiority. Whether that remains by the middle of next week is another question.
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