Despite Spain loss, Italy shows it's on the rise
FORTALEZA, Brazil (AP)
No matter how Italy fares in Sunday's third-place match vs. Uruguay, the team heads home from the Confederations Cup with heads held high and aware it's a team on the rise with the World Cup a year away.
After threatening to draw level with host Brazil in its final group match, Italy outplayed World Cup holder Spain for long stretches Thursday - even without its top player Mario Balotelli - before falling 7-6 in a penalty shootout following a draining 0-0 draw.
''I take pride in what we've done,'' Italy captain Gianluigi Buffon said. ''It's not a time to celebrate but I think a lot of people have appreciated the way we play.''
The semifinal was nothing like last year's European Championship final, when Spain routed Italy 4-0.
''We went beyond expectations,'' Italy defender Giorgio Chiellini said. ''We'll return to Brazil next year knowing that we can beat even Spain.''
While the 35-year-old Buffon and the 34-year-old Andrea Pirlo still form the backbone of Italy's squad, coach Cesare Prandelli has rounded the team out with several players virtually unheard of outside Italy.
Players like winger Emanuele Giaccherini, who often doesn't even start at Juventus but who set up Balotelli's winner against Mexico and scored himself against Brazil.
Players like Christian Maggio, the only Napoli representative among the Azzurri, whose 80th-minute header and potential equalizer thundered off the crossbar vs. Brazil and whose first-half shot against Spain was stopped only with an expert reflex save from the Spain goalkeeper Iker Casillas.
Players like Alessandro Diamanti, who toils in relative obscurity even inside Italy at Bologna but who shined for Italy at Euro 2012.
Prandelli has also asked for more out of Italy veterans like Daniele De Rossi and Chiellini.
Normally a midfielder, De Rossi played at center back from the second half on vs. Spain, while Chiellini is occasionally moved from his usual center back spot to fullback.
''I'm not Roberto Carlos but I give my all,'' Chiellini said memorably before Italy's first match vs. Mexico.
And then of course there's Balotelli, a player most managers have struggled to keep on course but someone who has always shown his best under Prandelli.
Balotelli was sent home with a strained left thigh after the 4-2 loss to Brazil and Italy could only imagine what the match vs. Spain would have been like if he had been healthy.
Balotelli's winner against Mexico displayed his rapidly improving talent and brute strength and his acrobatic volley setup of Giaccherini's goal vs. Brazil was a thing of beauty.
Balotelli is also Italy's top penalty taker. He has scored 18 out of 18 in his career with Italy, Inter Milan, Manchester City and AC Milan.
Italy could have used him in the shootout vs. Spain, when Leonardo Bonucci fired high to set up Jesus Navas' winner.
''Now I want to spend an entire year training from the penalty spot,'' Bonucci said. ''Because I don't want to repeat that at the World Cup.
''I approached the ball confidently but then when I saw that Casillas had guessed right I didn't have the necessary coolness and I tried to change my shot and lift the ball but I lifted it too much and you all saw what happened.''
Giaccherini revealed that he was scheduled to take the seventh kick.
''But I didn't feel up to it and I asked Leo to kick it,'' he said.
Still, even Bonucci wasn't completely distraught.
After all, this is just the warm-up tournament for the World Cup.
''Our real error was that we should have won in the 90 minutes of regular time, because we played better than them but we just couldn't find the target,'' Bonucci said. ''We imposed our game on Spain by pressing and counterattacking.
''It was a good test, actually a great experience because we faced the best in the world here and we also realized what type of climate we're going to have in 12 months,'' Bonucci added. ''It's not like Europe here. You can fly for three hours to change cities but you're still in the same country.''
Italy, however, is not the same squad it once was. It's a team on the rise.