Spain’s quarterfinal shootout victory over Italy at Euro 2008 is widely seen as their ‘Eureka!’ moment. The Azzurri will be looking to reestablish their dominance in Monday’s last 16 clash with the champions in Paris.
Spain had never got the better of bête noire Italy in a competitive match until Cesc Fabregas struck the winning penalty in Vienna just over eight years ago.
A 2-1 defeat over two legs in Florence in the 1934 World Cup quarterfinals was followed by a 0-0 stalemate in Milan in the group stage at the 1980 European Championship, a 1-0 reverse in Frankfurt at the 1988 Euro finals, also in the group stage, and then a 2-1 loss in Boston in the last eight at the 1994 World Cup.
But after their nerve-jangling 4-2 shootout win at the Ernst Happel Stadion, Spain went on to defeat Germany 1-0 in the final to claim their second major title and their first since they were crowned continental champions on home soil in 1964.
Coach Luis Aragones made way for Vicente del Bosque and a maiden World Cup triumph followed in South Africa in 2010 before they hammered Italy 4-0 in Kiev two years later to retain their European crown.
Striker Fernando Torres, who scored in both the Euro 2008 and 2012 finals, leaves no doubt about the importance to Spain of finally overcoming the Italians after eight decades of failure.
“Italy had kicked our backsides in so many tournaments that you start getting flashbacks of the worst moments,” Torres told UEFA.com.
“But Aragones made it a challenge to beat everyone, not just Italy,” added the decorated Atletico Madrid player.
“You walk out thinking you will change history, you win on penalties and that is the moment. When we beat Italy we were totally sure we’d be champions.”
Spain are not the all-conquering side they were in 2012, however, and several stalwarts of their ‘Golden Generation’, including midfielders Xavi Hernandez and Xabi Alonso and forwards Torres and David Villa, are no longer in the team.
Spain still favorites?
After Spain’s abject failure to defend their title at the 2014 World Cup, Italy will be confident they can build on an impressive group stage performance and advance to the last eight. If they manage it, coach Antonio Conte’s side will face Germany in the last eight after the world champions crushed Slovakia 3-0 on Sunday.
Italy were one of the most impressive performers in the group stage, despite a 1-0 reverse to Ireland in their final game, when Conte rested a host of regulars. They beat highly-fancied Belgium 2-0 before dispatching Sweden 1-0 to secure their berth in the knockout round.
“We need to have the same enthusiasm to face a team like Spain that we had when we took on Belgium, who also seemed stronger than us,” Conte said this week.
“Hard work is in our DNA and we have to carry on doing what we’re doing and not let nerves get the better of us.”
Respect for Iceland
England, meanwhile, do not appear to be underestimating minnows Iceland, the rugged North Atlantic island with a population of around 330,000 whose team is appearing at a major championship for the first time.
“We respect Iceland in what they’ve done in this tournament,” England captain Wayne Rooney said on Sunday ahead of the final last-16 match in Nice on Monday.
“I think the size of the country is just a number,” added the Manchester United forward.
“They put the same amount of players on the pitch as we do, so it’s a fair game in that respect.
“Fair credit to Iceland, they are a difficult team to break down and we have to be at our best to win – we know that – and take our chances when they come.”
The winner will play France for a place in the last four after the hosts came from behind to beat Ireland 2-1 on Sunday.