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Football

Italy-Spain friendly match pits last two World Cup winners

ROME: Italian football is bogged down by a match-fixing scandal, strike threats and an overall dip in the fortunes of the national game.

In Spain, tensions have eased following the run of four consecutive “Clasicos” between Barcelona and Real Madrid at the end of last season, although there are concerns over another flare up when the two clubs meet again in the first leg of the Spanish Super Cup Sunday.

In the middle of it all stands Wednesday’s friendly between the last two World Cup winners in Bari.

Italy hasn’t met Spain since the Iberians won a penalty shootout in the quarterfinals of the 2008 European Championship, propelling Spain to victory and later on the 2010 World Cup.

“I’m curious to see what point we’re at. Tests of this level are the only way to measure ourselves,” Italy coach Cesare Prandelli said. “They have a set way of playing, while we’re still searching for our identity.”

Spain has won all five of its Euro 2012 qualifiers and has a commanding six-point lead atop Group I, while Italy has won five and drawn one for a commanding five-point lead in Group C.

Like Marcello Lippi before him, Prandelli has done well thus far to keep his squad focused after the last match-fixing scandal broke in June with 16 arrests across Italy.

Meanwhile in Spain, while acknowledging that there was a rivalry between Madrid and Barcelona players, Spain coach Vicente del Bosque insists that the national side stands above the fray.

“If there hadn’t been a problem then we wouldn’t have talked about it. For me it’s impossible that [Andres] Iniesta doesn’t get along with [Xabi] Alonso, or Iker [Casillas] with Xavi Hernandez or Raul Albiol with [Gerard] Pique,” Del Bosque said.

“You have to put the sporting rivalry in its proper context, every player defends his clubs the best way possible but in the national team without union victory is impossible,” the coach added. “I am sure that we are on the right path.”

Spain’s squad has seven Barcelona players and five from Madrid.

Barcelona midfielder Xavi will miss the friendly due to a right leg muscle injury, while Madrid defender Sergio Ramos is out with an injured back.

The Spanish league season doesn’t start until the weekend of Aug. 20-21, while the Italian league is scheduled to begin a week later.

“True, we’re at the start of the season, but playing Italy always provides extra motivation,” said Spain midfielder Iniesta, who scored the decisive goal against the Netherlands in last year’s World Cup final.

“It’s one of the best national teams in the world and this is one of those matches you always want to play. I’m expecting an intense match, like always against Italy – even more so, since they’ll be at home.”

Italy’s squad contains just three members of the team that won the 2006 World Cup: goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon and midfielders Andrea Pirlo and Daniele De Rossi.

Prandelli has already picked United States-born striker Giuseppe Rossi, who plays for Villarreal in Spain, to lead the Azzurri attack, having left usual forward Alberto Gilardino off the squad.

“Gilardino is among the best in the world at playing deep inside the area, but against Spain I needed forwards with different characteristics,” Prandelli said. “They are extraordinary at ball possession, so it’s going to require a lot of organization on our part.”

Prandelli is also looking for a different result from recent August friendlies. Since 2002, the Azzurri have registered just two wins, two draws and five losses in their preseason fixtures.

“I want a change in mentality,” Prandelli said. “We also represent our country in friendlies.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 10, 2011, on page 15.
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