Sunday 22 June ~
The three Euro 2008 quarter-finals so far have all produced unexpected outcomes. Even though Spain have won all their group matches, the surprise today would be a Spanish win. Like Croatia, Holland and Portugal, they put out a second string for their final group match so their first choice side hasn't played competitively for over a week. Italy, meanwhile, come into the game with some momentum having achieved the victory they needed in their final group game. Plus, as has been said before, Spain haven't beaten Italy in a competitive match for eighty years and this seems to be weighing rather on Spanish players' minds – not least because the media in both countries have kept mentioning it in the build-up to the game.
If Spain do get past their bogey team today they will be installed as favourites to win the competition – even though semi-final opponents Russia have looked a better side than Italy – because they will have overcome a huge mental obstacle. Just as the equally fragile England would be expected to gain hugely in confidence from winning a tie on penalties, although this hasn't yet worked out in practice. The only major shootout won by an England team of course was against Spain in the Euro 96 quarter finals, when they ought to have lost in normal time, but the customary frailties resurfaced in the next round.
Both countries have won only one major tournament, when they were hosts, an underachievement put down to club football taking precedence over the national side. Both leagues are full of foreign players – although several overseas stars currently with Premier League clubs seem to be on the verge of heading to La Liga – and there is also a sense that deepset club enmities have undermined team spirit in the national squad. This is far more strongly developed in Spain, with its autonomous regions, than in England where it has only been a relatively recent development for the bulk of the team to be drawn from a group of elite sides. Then again, the English were flopping at international level long before the creation of the mini league within the Premier League which has produced some distinctly sour personal rivalries.
Anyone playing commentary bingo today can expect to tick off the one about Spain's mental fragility within the first sixty seconds. A stray pass will be interpreted as a sign that the Catalans in the team don't really get on with the Castilians, while a shot of the Spanish bench will prompt the suggestion that the players don't like their moody old manager, and quite right too. (Italy to win in extra time).