The Numbers Game: Euro 2024 heavyweights Spain and Italy face off in group of death

By Sports Desk June 18, 2024

Spain and reigning European champions Italy both won their opening matches at Euro 2024, and will now face off in Gelsenkirchen on Thursday. 

But both sides endured differing performances in their respective encounters, with La Roja cruising to a 3-0 victory over Croatia to condemn their opponents to joint-heaviest ever defeat at a major international tournament. 

However, Luciano Spalletti's pre-match words would still have been ringing in his Italy players' ears when Nedim Bajrami's goal after 23 seconds gave Albania a shock lead - the fastest goal ever scored at the European Championships. 

Yet two goals in five minutes from Alessandro Bastoni and Nicolo Barella ensured the Italians' quest of becoming the second team to win back-to-back Euros tournaments after Thursday's opponents did in 2008 and 2012. 

This will be the 11th encounter between Spain and Italy at a major tournament, across the Euros (eight) and World Cup (three), a record between two European nations.

It’s the fifth consecutive European Championship tournament at which they’ve met going back to 2008, also a record.

Here, we delve into the Opta data to preview Thursday's game.

What's expected?  

Despite Italy only losing one of their 10 matches against Spain in the Euros and World Cup (W4 D5) - that sole defeat came in the final at Euro 2012 - La Roja are given a 45.8 per cent chance of making it two wins from two at Euro 2024.

However, Spain has had the better of their previous meetings with Italy, winning their last two encounters, both in the Nations League, but have never won three consecutive matches against the Azzurri. 

La Roja has also prevailed in all three of their previous European Championship meetings with the reigning champions of the competition, reaching the final in each edition. 

The Spanish will take confidence from their opening display against Croatia, having outperformed their expected goals (xG) by 0.99 per cent, but will be hopeful of converting more of their big chances, having missed four in Berlin. 

 

Italy was also able to outscore their xG, but by a smaller margin of 0.44, but managed just five shots on target against Albania from the 17 they attempted. 

As in many major tournaments, being clinical could prove decisive, and this group in particular, could be the difference between staying in Germany or packing your bags for the next flight home. 

Calafiori and Bastoni taking the mantle from Chiellini and Bonucci

Their comeback success against Albania saw them win their opening encounter in four consecutive European Championships and the World Cup for the first time in their history, and they will look to build on that against the Spanish.

The Italians have often relied on the experience and know-how of Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci to lay a solid foundation for success but entered Euro 2024 with the sixth-youngest squad (26.5). 

Much was said of Spalletti's squad selection heading into the tournament, with many believing they would be proved right when they were pegged back early on against Albania. 

But the exuberance of youth shone through, particularly in Riccardo Calafiori, who starred in Bologna's qualification for the Champions League in the 2023-24 season, and then  shined on the international stage in his third appearance for his nation. 

2 - Riccardo #Calafiori (22 years and 27 days) is the second youngest Italy’s defender to play a match in European Championships history, after Paolo Maldini (19 years and 350 days, on 10th June 1988 against Germany). Impulse. #EURo2024 #ITAALB #ItaliaAlbania pic.twitter.com/2kKWNHW1iS

— OptaPaolo (@OptaPaolo) June 15, 2024

The 22-year-old had the joint-most interceptions (three), most duels won (six), and won all three of his aerial duels against a physical Albania side on his international tournament debut. 

Partnering with Bastoni, who scored the Italian's equaliser against Albania, Spalletti may have found a new partnership that sticks with the defensive values that were pivotal to their success in recent years. 

No more Tiik-taka?

La Roja, over the years, have been renowned for their possession play during their international successes, but their triumph over Croatia saw them find a different way to win. 

Spain had less possession than their opponents (47 per cent) for the first time in a competitive match since the Euro 2008 final against Germany (46 per cent), ending a run of 136 games in which they had more of the ball.

With a midfield trio of Rodri, Fabian Ruiz, and Pedri, Luis de la Fuente has a composed blend of experience and youth, with the discipline and composure instilled within them at club level to ensure they are not passing for passing sake. 

All three averaged a pass completion above 87 per cent, with Rodri (87.7 per cent) the least efficient in that regard. But accompanying their talented midfield is an exciting front line who were at their clinical best against Croatia. 

The emergence of Lamine Yamal, who became the youngest player to feature for La Roja at the Euros, had the most touches in the opposition box (six), created the joint-most chances (three), and grabbed an assist for Dani Carvajal's first international goal. 

Alvaro Morata, who is captaining his side for the first time at a major tournament, became Spain's outright second-highest goalscorer at major international tournaments, behind only David Villa (13). 

Indeed, in European Championship history, only Cristiano Ronaldo and Michel Platini have netted more goals than Morata (seven).

Spain will continue to boast the majority of possession in most of their upcoming fixtures, but under De la Fuente, they have found a new way of playing. 

7 - Only Cesc Fàbregas (8 - 3 goals, 5 assists) has been involved in more #EUROs goals for #Spain  than Álvaro Morata (7 - 7 goals, the same as Fernando Torres and David Silva). Reference. #Euro2024 pic.twitter.com/dfGTdjuai3

— OptaJose (@OptaJose) June 15, 2024

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Italy - Nicolo Barella

Over the years, the Italy midfield has been filled with a plethora of talent that has won international honours. Nicolo Barella will be regarded as one of those should he help the Azzurri clinch their second straight Euros crown. 

Barella has been directly involved in five goals in his last seven appearances for Italy (two goals, three assists), with his strike against Albania seeing him score in successive international appearances for the first time since June 2019.

The Inter midfielder's combination of tenacity and composure was on show once more, completing 105 of his 108 passes in the Azzurri's opening game of the tournament, the highest pass completion rate (97.2 percent) of those who featured in the starting line-up. 

10 - Among the players currently in the Italian national team  Nicolò #Barella has scored the most goals for the Azzurri (10). Star. #EURo2024 #ITAALB pic.twitter.com/B2RIhHFw2H

— OptaPaolo (@OptaPaolo) June 15, 2024

The saying of the battle being won in midfield is often thrown around rather lazily in modern football, but this certainly could be the case in Gelsenkirchen. 

Spain - Fabian Ruiz

Attempting to halt the Italian midfield will be Ruiz, who marked his 24th appearance for his country with just his third international goal against Croatia. 

The 28-year-old was directly involved in two of Spain’s three goals in their opening game, assisting Alvaro Morata and scoring La Roja's second. 

Since making his national team debut in June 2019, only Jordi Alba (nine) has made more assists for Spain than the Paris Saint-Germain midfielder (eight).

But Ruiz's defensive discipline also aided Spain in keeping a clean sheet against Croatia, with the former Napoli star winning four of his five duels during the contest in Berlin, while also having a pass accuracy of 90.7 per cent from 54 attempted passes. 

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