Euro 2016 ambitions on display as Italy and Spain play to friendly draw
UDINE, Italy -- With Italy and Spain playing to a 1-1 friendly draw at the Stadio Friuli, Nick Ames highlights five talking points La Furia Roja and the Azzurri will be focused on in their preparation for this summer's European Championship.
1. Conte's system change points the way
Antonio Conte had promised to take Spain on with attacking, high-tempo football, and his assertive Italy side delivered. The coach used this friendly to test a 3-4-3 formation, similar to the setup he used when in charge of Juventus, and he seems certain to take that into Euro 2016.
Little that he saw Thursday will have changed his mind. Italy pushed high up the pitch from the beginning, set a brisk tempo and denied Spain any space to get into their stride.
The recalled Thiago Motta and, in particular, Lazio's Marco Parolo were quick to push forward and stop moves developing, while Alessandro Florenzi and Emanuele Giaccherini were as diligent on the flanks as this system demands. They also found some success in hitting centre-forward Graziano Pelle early, usually via Manchester United's Matteo Darmian, and bringing the lively right-sided attacker Antonio Candreva into play.
It was Darmian's selection on the right side of a back three that suggested Conte will take this setup into the finals, come what may. The 26-year-old is naturally a right-back and was effectively filling a central gap created by injuries to Giorgio Chiellini and Andrea Barzagli. With the personnel available, a flat four might have made sense, but Darmian played well enough and the flexibility of Italy's approach -- three quickly became five when needed -- gave plenty of cover.
As it was, Italy were on the front foot for most of the evening, and Conte -- whose side was watched from the stands by Chelsea player-liaison officer Gary Straker -- was given more than enough encouragement that this will be the system to deploy this summer. "I got the response I was looking for," he said afterward, and he will hope for more of the same against Germany on Tuesday.
2. Aduriz delivers, but striker doubts remain
It was quite a way to make an exit. As Aritz Aduriz lined up to attack one last set piece on a night that had seen him fed scraps, a glance at the touchline would have spotted David Silva waiting to come on and the Athletic Bilbao striker's number being prepared. Aduriz promptly smashed Spain's equalizer in from a yard out, departed as planned moments later and perhaps felt dazed at the latest development in a glorious Indian summer.
Aduriz's inclusion in Vicente del Bosque's starting lineup would have been a fairy tale if it did not make such sense. Now 35 and uncapped since his sole appearance for La Roja in 2010, Aduriz has been in brilliant form this season. He has scored 31 goals for his club and has earned a chance with the national team in the absence of Diego Costa.
Yet there was not enough evidence this night that Aduriz should spearhead his side in France. That was through no major fault of his; Spain began in a 4-1-4-1 formation with Aduriz leading the line and Alvaro Morata offering support from the left. Morata moved centrally after the break, in theory working closer to Aduriz, but chances were few, with the supply line strangled by a hardworking Italy midfield.
Before his goal, Spain had been virtually invisible as an attacking force. Perhaps the rampaging presence of Costa or a central role for Morata in their usual 4-3-3 is still the more realistic option for Euro 2016. But if nothing else, Aduriz showed a poacher's instinct that should merit a place on the plane.
"He's adapted perfectly to our game," Del Bosque said of the hardworking striker's performance, which suggested Aduriz has done himself little harm.
3. Insigne comes in from the cold
Has Lorenzo Insigne played his way into Conte's thoughts for a starting place in France? The man he replaced in the 51st minute, Eder, always looked a square peg in a round hole and rarely exuded comfort with his role on the left side of the attack. Insigne, though, knows the role well and instantly added penetration to an Italy side whose feisty performance had brought few clear chances.
Within 10 minutes of coming on, he had forced a good save from David De Gea and laid on another opportunity, from which the goalkeeper superbly denied Florenzi. Insigne's goal came after he had drifted into the centre and slid to meet a Giaccherini cross, and he was denied a marvelous second when De Gea tipped over his 20-yard chip.
Insigne was winning only his seventh cap, and it should be noted that the kind of gap he loves to exploit appeared more frequently as the second half wore on. But this might have been a watershed night for the Napoli forward, whose domestic form for the title chasers has been excellent. He had not been called up since the 2014 World Cup after a disagreement with Conte over his withdrawal from a previous squad, but he said afterward that the two had patched things up.
"The coach and I cleared the air. It was a misunderstanding," Insigne said. "I always said I am very proud to represent Italy, and I will always give everything for Italy."
Now there is every chance that he will be afforded the chance to do so.
4. Spain a shadow of themselves without injured stars
This was a flat, pallid performance from Spain, and it cast a light on their reliance on three players. Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets missed the game through injury, while Silva played only the last 20 minutes. Spain found it hard to retain possession throughout and, with Juan Mata and Cesc Fabregas both off-key, offered little between the lines, especially in a first half in which their midfield lacked any depth or devil.
Silva's introduction made a degree of difference, at least, with Spain at last able to call upon someone who could carry and retain the ball. But Mikel San Jose had a tough night in Busquets' holding position, and if there was a conclusion to be drawn by Del Bosque, it might be that Spain's prospects differ markedly when much of their long-standing core is removed.
That is hardly unexpected. The absences of Iniesta and Busquets meant it was difficult to read too much into just how ready Spain are for a tilt at their third consecutive European Championship.
"We couldn't have possession of the ball," a concerned Del Bosque said postgame. "We needed to risk more. I hope we're in a better condition for Euro 2016."
Even so, he expects this was a one-off from his depleted selection.
5. No. 1 shirt is De Gea's to lose
The Spanish No. 1 shirt is now De Gea's to lose. There seems little prospect of a continuation in his to-and-fro with Iker Casillas, who remains Spain's captain, for the goalkeeper's position. The Manchester United keeper's performance in Udine underlined that he is becoming as important to La Furia Roja as many of his trophied outfield teammates.
De Gea was called upon far more often than he would have liked in a shaky Spain display, and his fingertip save from Insigne's chip was the best of an impressive bunch. That stop inspired the small pocket of Spain supporters inside Stadio Friuli to chant his name, and he was sharp to deny Candreva, Insigne and, particularly impressively, Florenzi. De Gea's handling and distribution were also as sound as would be expected, and while Casillas will play an important role off the pitch in France this summer, it seems certain that on the pitch, he will be playing second fiddle to his younger colleague.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.