Italy rescues draw against Spain
Both extend unbeaten runs in qualifying
Kosovo humbled in first competitive home game
Iceland continues footballing rise
Two international teams with two of the longest unbeaten runs in history – in the end, it was always going to be a draw.
Spain went into its clash against Italy without defeat in 54 World Cup qualifiers, a run stretching back to a 1-0 reverse against Denmark in 1993.
Italy, on the other hand, was undefeated in 51 World Cup and European Championship qualifiers, last tasting defeat against France a decade ago.
After Thursday’s match in Turin, both sides could continue to boast their impressive records.
“We paid for our tension, we gave the ball away too easily,” Italy coach Giampiero Ventura said of his side’s performance.
“The first half was very tough, they kept the ball and we weren’t aggressive. The second half was better.”
“Spain are favorites for this group but this game showed that we can achieve our goals if we want to.”
Spain, as expected, started the match on the front foot in coach Julen Lopetegui’s second competitive game in charge and took just 10 minutes to carve out its first clear opening.
An intricate one-two between Andres Iniesta and David Silva on the edge of the penalty area created space in the box, but the Barcelona man checked back onto his weaker left foot and curled a tame shot into the hands of Gianluigi Buffon.
Spain continued to dominate possession and created a glut of clear-cut chances.
Gerard Pique was the first to get his head on the end of Iniesta’s whipped cross, but captain Sergio Ramos inadvertently deflected his effort behind with the ball destined for the bottom corner.
Despite an array of attacking talent on the pitch, the Barcelona defender – in good goalscoring form for his club – looked the most likely to open the scoring in the first half.
Just before the break, Ramos rose highest at the far post to head Koke’s cross back across goal, but Pique’s headed effort was straight at Buffon from just three yards out.
Italy rode its luck with Spain utteraly dominant, and the half-time stats made for grim reading for the hosts.
Spain enjoyed 75% possession, seven shots to Italy’s zero and nine corners to Italy’s zero.
As the second half began, then, it was no surprise which side took the lead – the only surprise was how it came about.
Of all men to make a mistake, it was the wily, evergreen veteran Buffon who gifted Spain the opener.
The 38-year-old came charging out of his area to meet Silva’s through pass, getting there well ahead of Vitolo but took his eye off the ball, allowing the Spain forward to roll into an empty net.
“Even the best goalkeeper in history can make mistakes,” Italy midfielder Daniele De Rossi said after the game. “He’s not a machine and that can happen.”
It looked as though Italy’s 51-match, 10-year unbeaten record was coming to an end, but you can always rely on Ramos to gift you a chance.
With just eight minutes remaining, Alessandro Florenzi’s cross into the box took a deflection into the path of Eder, who beat a static Ramos to the ball and the Real Madrid defender clipped his heels to concede a penalty.
De Rossi stepped up to the ball with an arrogant swagger that belied the pressure on the penalty kick and nonchalantly rolled the ball into the left corner, sending David de Gea the wrong way.
After dominating for the vast majority of the match, Spain now looked the most likely to relinquish its unbeaten run.
Lively substitute Ciro Immobile continuously proved a handful for Spain’s defense, as he skipped to the byline and fired a cross across the six-yard box, but not one of three Italy players anticipated the ball.
Italy looked to have stolen a late winner, after Andrea Belotti turned the ball home, but the linesman correctly flagged Immobile for offside in the build up.
“In truth, the first half was comfortable,” Spain’s goalscorer Vitolo said. “We gained a very important point playing away from home, so we leave satisfied. “
However, Atletico Madrid midfielder Koke felt differently.
“It was a highly-contested match, we played a great first half,” he added. “After our goal they were a lot more direct, we’re a bit sad for not having won.”
You get a sense Italy will be much the happier with the end result.
Meanwhile, Kosovo suffered a rude awakening from its World Cup dream with a 6-0 defeat at the hands of Croatia.
Playing in only its second competitive fixture, after FIFA officially assigned the country to World Cup qualifying, a first-half Mario Mandzukic hattrick set Croatia on its way to a comprehensive victory.
Iceland’s footballing rise, on the other hand, shows no signs of stopping.
After a scarcely believable Euro 2016 campaign — in which it knocked out England – the tiny island nation scored two goals in stoppage time against Finland to turn defeat into victory right at the death.