Spain hasn’t beaten Italy in a major tournament since 1920

Baden: Consistent challenger against proven champion. Young vs old. Fast starter against slow.

The contrasts couldn’t be greater between Spain and Italy entering Sunday’s European Championship quarterfinals.

The Iberian’s only major title came when it hosted the 1964 European tournament, while Italy is only two years removed from its fourth World Cup title.

Spain boasts the third-youngest squad of the tournament with an average age of 26.44. Italy’s average of 29.14 is the oldest.

Spain blitzed through the group stage with three straight victories over Russia, Sweden and Greece, scoring eight goals. Italy scraped by with a lopsided 3-0 loss to the Netherlands, an uninspiring 1-1 draw with Romania and a laborious 2-0 win over 10-man France.

“With the record they have, they are the favourites,” Spain striker Fernando Torres said. “May be they didn’t have a brilliant group stage but they didn’t either in the (2006) World Cup and they ended up winning it.”

Spain hasn’t beaten Italy in a major senior competition since the 1920 Antwerp Olympics.

“I don’t want to know about the statistics,” Italy coach Roberto Donadoni said. In March, Spain beat Italy 1-0 in a friendly through a late volley from David Villa, who leads all scorers at Euro 2008 with four goals, three of them coming with a hat-trick when Spain opened with a 4-1 rout of Russia.

Clean slate

Spain is riding a 19-match unbeaten streak, but the Iberians have a habit of not getting past the quarterfinals in major tournaments. At the 2006 World Cup, a Spanish team brimming with confidence cruised through the group stage with three solid wins only to be sent home by France in the first knockout round.

“The beginning of the European Championship is now,” Torres said.

“It’s the most important game for each player in this team and for the country.”

The match at the Ernst Happel Stadium in Vienna is the first official meeting between the two sides since the 1994 World Cup, when Roberto Baggio’s late goal gave Italy a 2-1 win and a spot in the semifinals. The Spaniards best remember that match for how Italy defender Mauro Tassotti broke forward Luis Enrique’s nose in injury time.

The Spanish press is hyping Sunday’s encounter as a grudge match.

“I was hit with six matches (suspension). I missed the World Cup final and I never played again for Italy,” Tassotti told Spanish newspaper Marca. “What more do they want?”

Italy also struggled at the start of the 1994 World Cup, losing its opener to Ireland before regaining its form to reach the final. Donadoni was a starter in the midfield on the ’94 squad.

Midfield worries

Italy has midfield worries this time around, since Andrea Pirlo and Gennaro Gattuso are both suspended due to accumulated cards. Massimo Ambrosini and Alberto Aquilani are the likely substitutes.

Defender Andrea Barzagli was ruled out of the tournament due to a left knee injury on Thursday, and Italy was already without captain Fabio Cannavaro, who tore tendons in his ankle before the tournament began. Cannavaro has remained with the squad, and the Real Madrid defender has plenty of advice to offer his teammates on Spain’s players.

“They’ve got great individual talent. You need a radar gun to stop their two forwards, Torres and Villa,” Cannavaro said.

Besides Villa’s four goals, Torres has scored once and Daniel Guiza added one against Greece, capping a season in which the Mallorca forward led the Spanish league with 27 goals.

Italy’s seven attacking players are still scoreless. Defender Christian Panucci scored in the 1-1 draw with Romania, while Pirlo and fellow midfielder Daniele De Rossi scored against France. — AP

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