ITALY defender Leonardo Bonucci expects a “more motivated” Spain seeking revenge for their early exit at Euro 2016 when the sides meet in a tantalising 2018 World Cup qualifier in Turin today. Italy host “La Roja” at Juventus Stadium in what is their first meeting since a 2-0 final-16 defeat at the Stade de France in June ended Spain’s hopes of a record third consecutive European Championship crown.
Both sides have since undergone coaching changes, Giampiero Ventura replacing Antonio Conte at the Italy helm and Julen Lopetegui stepping in for Vicente del Bosque.
While Spain put eight unanswered goals past Liechtenstein in their opening Group G qualifier in Leon last month, 10-man Italy returned from Israel with three hard-earned points from a 3-1 battle in Haifa.
In his second competitive game in charge, after succeeding now-Chelsea manager Conte, Ventura is surely feeling the pressure to deliver.
Asked if Spain were favourites, Bonucci said, “Totally, yes. And if we’re to upset predictions we’ll have to play like we did at the Euros, with pace, commitment and by being clinical in front of goal.”
Barcelona midfielder Sergio Busquets said on October 4, “At the Euros we made a few slips but now it is time for revenge. Qualification for the World Cup is at stake here.”
Expectations remain high that Spain and Italy will stick to the form book and take maximum points from remaining home and away fixtures against Macedonia, Liechtenstein, Israel and Albania.
With only the group winners progressing automatically to the finals in Russia, that means Italy and Spain’s head-to-head encounters take on outsized weight.
And if Ventura ever needed reminding, Busquets added, “It’s not a decisive match for either of us, but it is important to fight for the top spot, especially as we’re the strongest sides in the group.”
Ventura, who suffered a 3-1 friendly defeat to France on his maiden outing as Italy coach, is under no illusions as he prepares to face off against a coach who, he says, has given Spain fresh energy and conviction.
“They’re the strongest opponents in the group,” he said. “Since Lopetegui took over they’ve changed the way they play, and their approach to games. He’s given them an adrenaline boost, and conviction.
“It’s a delicate game for us, an important test.”
After Spain, Italy face Macedonia away on October 9 in the midst of a hectic period for many members of his squad performing club duties.
Ventura complained, “I’m going to have players who will have played seven games in the space of 20 days.”
He is expected to deploy Shandong Luneng striker Graziano Pelle and Eder of Inter Milan in attack in a preferred 3-5-2.
Ventura’s all-Juventus defensive line will be without Giorgio Chiellini as he serves a suspension after receiving a red card against Israel, meaning Andrea Barzagli and Leonardo Bonucci will welcome AC Milan’s Alessio Romagnoli into the back three.
Real Sociedad defender Inigo Martinez and Manchester United’s Ander Herrera have also been added to the Spain squad in recent days, with Bayern Munich’s Javi Martinez having withdrawn due to injury. –
Spain goalkeeper David De Gea (right) saves a header from Graziano Pelle (second left) of Italy during a UEFA Euro 2016 round of 16 match at Stade de France on June 27. Italy won 2-0, ending Spain’s bid for a record third consecutive Euro title.