Spain beat Italy 7-6 on penalties after semifinal ends goalless after 120 minutes
World Cup winners will now meet hosts Brazil in Sunday's Confederations Cup final
Italy have chance to seal third place against Uruguay on Sunday
Reigning world and European champions Spain set up the purists’ dream Confederations Cup final against host nation Brazil but only after squeaking past a stubborn Italian side on penalties.
The heavyweight European nations produced an entertaining game which somehow ended goalless after extra time, as both sides’ endurance was tested to the limit in the heat of Fortaleza.
In contrast to the finishing seen in open play, the strikes at goal in the penalty shootout were of the highest standard until defender Leonardo Bonucci skied the 13th effort well wide of goal.
That allowed Jesus Navas to coolly fire Spain into Sunday’s final as 7-6 winners on penalties – so maintaining their hopes of holding the world, European and Confederations Cup titles all at once.
Having won the World Cup (2010), the European Championship (on three occasions) and the Olympics (1992), FIFA’s so-called Festival of Champions – which pits the continental champions against both the World Cup winners and hosts – is the one trophy missing from Spain’s illustrious cabinet.
Yet Vicente del Bosque’s side were not at their best against familiar foes and could have suffered an unexpected reverse had Italy not wasted a host of early opportunities, with Emanuele Giaccherini hitting a post early in extra time.
The absence of injured striker Mario Balotelli was keenly felt as Christian Maggio, Alberto Gilardino and Claudio Marchisio all missed gilt-edged opportunities in the opening 45 minutes.
“I think it was an excellent performance from both teams, who proved they are right at the top of the European game,” Spain coach del Bosque told FIFA’s official website.
“Italy were better than us for the whole first period when they put us in uncomfortable situations several times.
“We couldn’t control the game properly and we looked very open. But, bit by bit, we got a second wind, improved after the interval and ended up being the better side come extra time.
“Then fortune went our way in the shootout, which put us through to a great final. We’re enormously excited about taking on Brazil in the Maracana.”
“Despite all the things they’ve won - our players feel like kids! They’re playing Brazil at the Maracana and that’s taken them back to boyhood days.”
The host nation ensured they will be playing in the iconic Rio de Janeiro stadium, which is set to host the 2014 World Cup final, when beating fellow South Americans Uruguay 2-1 in a tight contest on Wednesday.
Italy will feel they deserved more from the game than the chance to win third place when facing the Uruguayans in Salvador on Sunday, even if goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon did turn a Xavi effort against the post in the dying moments.
“The lads played a great match, from the first minute to the last, and we created plenty of situations that could have won us the game, but once it goes to penalties anything can happen,” said Cesare Prandelli, whose tactics successfully stifled the Spanish.
“Spain are currently ahead of us because they’ve been following the same ideology for years, whereas we’re still forging our own path.
“This match has been a great test for us, no doubt about that, and we passed it despite the result. We were convinced about how we needed to play, in both technical and tactical terms, and we proved that we have the quality to battle it out with the best.”
Prandelli can reflect on a far superior display to the two teams’ meeting in the European Championship final in Kiev one year ago, when Spain romped to a 4-0 victory as they lifted the continental title for the third time following previous triumphs in 1964 and 2008.
When the sides had met in the group stages in Gdansk last year, the 1-1 draw was built upon Italy’s decision to play a three-man defense – and Prandelli’s decision to revert to that system once again restricted Spanish creativity for large parts of the game.
Brazil coach Felipe Scolari will have followed the tactical ploy with interest as his side bid to win the Confederations Cup for the third time in a row following successes in 2005 and 2009.
As has become a feature of the Confederations Cup, the build-up to the match witnessed clashes between police and anti-government protesters.
Brazil has been hit by wave of mass demonstrations as its citizens clamor for better public services in a land where $15 billion has been set aside to host the Confederations Cup and next year’s World Cup.
Over a million people took to the streets in the early days of the tournament but there were just an estimated 5,000 protesting in Fortaleza on Thursday, with police saying they arrested 72 people.