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La Roja shows class but scrambles to tie opener with Italy

Spain struggles to convert excellent build-up play into clear scoring chances as Azzurri make Spain suffer

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Andrés Iniesta (right) feels the force of a tackle by Italy defender Leonardo Bonucci in Gdansk.

Spain will be regretting its wastefulness in front of goal in Gdansk on Sunday after tying 1-1 with Italy in the reigning champion’s first match of Euro 2012, a clash that proved to be the best game of the tournament to date.

But a point from the opening fixture in Group C — which also includes Ireland and Croatia — could prove to be a reasonable result against Spain’s strongest first-phase rival, and is a better start than the team made under coach Vicente del Bosque to the World Cup in South Africa two years ago. La Roja lost to Switzerland in the first match before winning six straight games to become world champion. After the Italy match, the coach said it had been an open game in which “anyone could have won.”

Italy, more direct in its attacking style, took the lead through Antonio Di Natale with an hour on the clock. But Cesc Fàbregas quickly equalized for the champion after a trademark Spain passing move on the edge of the penalty area.

Del Bosque surprised everyone by not playing any of his center forwards from the start, opting instead to play Barcelona midfielder Fàbregas as a “false number nine” — with Andrés Iniesta and David Silva in support just behind him.

As expected, Spain dominated the ball from the start, as Italy set out to nullify Del Bosque’s team and hit the champion on the counter.

The Italians did an excellent job of this, preventing Spain from getting a clear glimpse of goal in spite of their vast superiority in terms of possession. Indeed, it was Cesare Prandelli’s side which looked more likely to score in the first half, with Antonio Cassano coming close on two occasions and Thiago Motta missing a great chance on the stroke of half time.

The second half was a frantic affair, with Spain maintaining their control of the ball but Italy showing impressive pace on the counter-attack. Spain wasted three great chances in the first five minutes following the restart, as both Xavi and Fàbregas came close from 30-yard attempts and Spain’s man-of-the-match Iniesta fired a shot inches wide of Gianluigi Buffon’s far post after a surging run into the box.

At the other end Mario Balotelli wasted a great chance to give Italy the lead, the forward finding himself in acres of space but was strangely lethargic in the box, allowing Sergio Ramos to make a last-ditch tackle.

Italy took the lead on 60 minutes when Andrea Pirlo split the Spanish defense to allow Antonio Di Natale to shoot past Iker Casillas.

Spain responded well to going behind and equalized four minutes later when Fàbregas finished off a superb interchange between Iniesta and Silva. Fernando Torres was brought on just after the goal but his presence did not help matters, as the Chelsea forward appeared to still be low on confidence after a woeful English league campaign and squandered three great chances to win the game.

In the last minute of normal time Claudio Marchisio should have punished Spain’s inability to score but could not beat Casillas, while Xabi Alonso was unable to convert two long-range efforts at the death. contributed material to this article.