Silk’s revenge?

In European soccer, steel usually prevails over silk, and that was the case in Thursday’s quarterfinal match between Germany and Portugal. Tomorrow, silk gets a rematch when Spain takes on Italy in the last quarterfinal.

The omens are so good for Italy that it almost seems like we’ve seen them win this match before. Beyond the fact that the “hard” team, here Italy, usually comes out on top, Spain has an abysmal record at crunch time in major tournaments. Spain also has a penchant for “flattering to deceive” – that is, being knocked out after playing extremely well in the early stage of a tournament, as the Spaniards have this year. No one looked better than Spain early in the last World Cup; yet after Spain scored an early goal against France in their knock-out match, France came back to win.

Spain hasn’t played Italy often recently in big matches. However, in the 1994 World Cup, Italy beat a very good Spanish team in the quarterfinals 2-1 on a late goal. And although Spain’s actual head-to-head record against Italy doesn’t seem bad enough to justify it, the Spanish sporting press went into something like mourning when it became clear that Italy would provide the quarterfinal opposition this year. It also turns out that Spain has crashed out of three major tournaments on the precise date, June 22, of this year’s encounter with Italy.

Then there’s the fate of the other fast starters this year. In all three quarterfinal matches played so far, the winner of the Group stage has lost. Holland, the only team other than Spain to win all three preliminary matches, fell to Russia today. And Portugal, who handily won its first two matches before resting its starters in the third, lost its silk vs. steel encounter to Germany, the European side that most closely resembles Italy.

Yet if one looks beyond omens, a good case can be made for Spain. First, Spain has more steel in midfield than Portugal. In particular, the Brazilian-born holding midfielder Senna looks to be as tough a customer as any midfielder in the tournament. Second, unlike Portugal, Spain’s goalkeeper, Casillas, isn’t the least bit dodgy. In fact, he’s probably one of the top five keepers in the world. Third, where Portugal plays only one true forward, the solid but unspectacular Nuno Gomes, Spain uses two up front. One of them, Fernando Torres, was the best forward in England this year. The other, David Villa, is the leading scorer so far at Euro 2008.

For its part, Italy may be less steely than normal. Tomorrow, as the result of suspensions, the Italians will be missing their toughest midfielder, Gattuso, and their best overall midfielder, Pirlo. Moreover, in the center of the defense, where we’re used to seeing the likes of Maldini, Nesta, and Cannavaro, the Italians will send out Chiellini and Panucci. The former is inexperienced at this level; the latter is a 35 year-old who normally plays right back and was frequently rested by his club side, Roma, this year. The pairing has been effective so far, but will likely struggle to contain Torres and Villa.

As with Portugal, though, Spain’s central defensive pairing of Puyol and Marchena seems suspect. And Italy’s powerful center forward Toni may be poised to exploit this. Though he hasn’t scored yet, in recent matches Toni has won a penalty and had a goal incorrectly disallowed. He has also narrowly missed several chances. Tomorrow could be his break-out match. Toni seems capable of scoring or creating two goals, and it won’t be easy for Spain to put two past the Italian keeper Buffon, the world’s best in my opinion.

All-in-all, then, the contest looks like a toss-up. If he had to pick a winner, I’d cast my better judgment aside, ignore the omens, and pick the chronically underachieving Spaniards to take down the world champions.

UPDATE: I should have mentioned the coaches. The commentary I’ve read gives the edge here to Spain, whose coach, 69 year-old Luis Aragones, has been at it forever and has substantial big-match experience for club and country. Italy’s Roberto Donadoni is essentially a newcomer at this level, having taken over the Italian team after the last World Cup. He has never coached a major club either.

I’m not so sure. Aragones’ tactics in the 2006 World Cup match against France were terrible. Moreover, I think he’s a bit unstable. Indeed, there are rumors of bust-ups between Aragones and two of his stars, Fernando Torres and Sergio Ramos, and that’s on a team that has rolled through its first three matches. Another bad omen for Spain?

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