PREVIEW - Spain face familiar challenge in heavyweight tussle
By Patrick Vignal
PARIS (Reuters) - A mouth-watering clash of styles between holders Spain and familiar foes Italy on Monday for a place in the Euro 2016 quarter-finals is a tough one to call after mixed performances from both sides in the group stage.
Spain, who cruised to a 4-0 victory over Italy in the Euro 2012 final in Kiev, started their title defence in promising fashion before a 2-1 defeat by Croatia meant they must now take on their old rivals in the last 16.
"I saw that 2012 final on TV," Spain midfielder Koke said. "I really enjoyed the way Spain played that game. But against such big teams there are no favourites."
Italy, relying on a bunch of veterans with no real top name in their squad apart from goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, had been written off by many and left for the tournament in an atmosphere of doom and gloom.
The Azzurri surprised observers with an opening 2-0 win over fancied Belgium and went on to beat Sweden 1-0 before looking their age in a 1-0 defeat by Ireland.
"We need to have the same enthusiasm to face a team like Spain that we had when we approached Belgium, who also seemed stronger than us," Italy coach Antonio Conte said.
Giorgi Chiellini, the leader of an Italian defence widely regarded as the best in the competition, echoed a general feeling by saying he would have preferred the two sides to meet later in the tournament.
"Spain have been our bogey team since 2008 which is when their winning cycle began," Chiellini said, referring to a defeat on penalties in the quarter-finals of the European championship that year, which the Spaniards went on to win.
Spain, whose dominance of the game looked to be coming to an end when they made a shock group-stage exit from the 2014 World Cup, are still the masters of possession, relying on their trademark, tiki-taka style based on short passing and movement.
Their defence, however, can show signs of nerves under pressure and they lack ruthlessness up front, even if they do have a dangerous marksman in Alvaro Morata, who has scored three goals to top the scorers' table alongside Gareth Bale of Wales.
Italy, by contrast, follow the recipe they have used over the years, shutting shop at the back and patiently waiting for their chances with plenty of discipline. They do lack firepower up front but have a record of doing just enough to win.
While Conte has kept tinkering with his squad in the group stage, Spanish counterpart Vicente Del Bosque has faced criticism for using the largely the same lineup in all three games.
"I accept it (the criticism) because it goes with my position," Del Bosque told AS newspaper. "Had I made changes and we lost, people would have said 'why change something that works?' But there was nothing to alter."
Spain, chasing an unprecedented third successive European Championship title and looking forward to facing Germany or Slovakia in the next round, have the upper hand in recent history, having not lost a competitive match against Italy since the 1994 World Cup.
"If we were to play the match on paper, there would be no contest but luckily there's the pitch," said Conte.
(Editing by Ed Osmond)