European heavyweights Italy and Spain will clash at Juventus Stadium on Thursday as World Cup qualifying for the UEFA region gets back underway.
Italy ran out 2-0 winners the last time these two faced off in the round of 16 at the European Championships last summer. That was the first time in over four years the Azzurri had managed a win against Spain.
Going into Thursday’s clash there’s a sense that these nations are both in different stages of the rebuilding process. Italy’s golden generation, which won the World Cup in 2006, have largely moved on. But Antonio Conte’s youngish Italy team was one of the surprise packages of Euro 2016.
Conte has of course gone on to Chelsea. But his successor Giampiero Ventura carried on Conte’s good, work with five wins, one loss and a draw from his seven games in charge. Ventura has also made some lineup shakeups as he looks to turn the page from the Conte era.
He has also preferred a 3-5-2 formation that against Israel last month, saw him partner Inter striker Eder with Graziano Pelle’, now plying his trade in the Chinese Super League. Ventura has also recalled Ciro Immobile to the squad and somewhat surprisingly, opted to leave out the likes of Stephan El Shaarawy and Lorenzo Insigne.
One attacking player who is conspicuously absent from the Italy squad it Mario Balotelli. The former Liverpool man has rediscovered his scoring touch since moving to Nice in Ligue 1 but was bypassed by the coach despite many arguing that his good form warranted a call-up.
While Italy’s attack looks in fine fiddle, the three-time World Cup winners will have to make do without their defensive anchorman. Juventus center-back Giorgio Chiellini was sent off in the 3-1 win over Israel and will be suspended for Thursday. Chiellini’s absence means Ventura will have to forge a backline using some combination of Andrea Baragli, Leonardo Bonucci, Alessio Romagnoli, and Davide Astori.
During the Euros, there was a sense that Spain were very much where Italy had been over the past couple of years, in a state of rebuilding basically.
But with the torch passed from Vicente del Bosque to new coach Julian Lopetegui, there’s a sense that this Spain team is getting its swagger back. Lopetegui has restored Diego Costa to the lineup to great effect after the striker was dropped following the 2014 World Cup.
Lopetegui also has the benefit of being able to choose from a core of players he’s already won a trophy with. David De Gea, Isco, Thiago Morata, Inigo Martinez, Koke, Nacho and Dani Caravajal were all part of the team Lopetegui coached to U21 European title three years ago and all five were called up for the squad against Italy. Manchester United’s Ander Herrera has received his first call-up.
The challenge for Lopetegui will be to integrate the rising stars he’s so familiar with into a cohesive unit with his seasoned veterans. 2010 World Cup winners Gerard Pique, Sergio Busquets, Sergio Ramos and Andres Iniesta are all in the squad to face Italy as well.
Things looked promising for Spain in their last outing – an 8-0 thrashing of Liechtenstein last month. But Liechtenstein are a far cry from Italy and on Thursday Lopetegui will have a chance to really gauge how far his team has progressed since the disappointment of Euro 2016.
Spain and Italy head into Thursday tied with Albania atop Group G. While it’s still early in the qualifying process, the match offers a chance to lay a marker down as the top dog in the group.
Watch Italy vs. Spain in World Cup qualifying Thursday, October 6 at 2:30pm ET on Fox Sports 1.