Spain held to 1-1 draw by scandal-ridden Italy
For Spain, it was a bit of a stumble. For Italy, it was a bit of a reprieve.
Beginning its bid for a third straight major title, the Spanish rallied to earn a 1-1 draw Sunday against Italy, which entered this year's European Championship amid another match-fixing scandal.
Antonio Di Natale put Italy in front after an excellent setup from Andrea Pirlo in the 61st minute, but Cesc Fabregas equalized for the defending champions three minutes later by finishing off a dazzling display of Spain's trademark passing game.
''Being the favorite now is complicated, but in the end we found the character (to earn a draw),'' Fabregas said.
Spain, which followed up its Euro 2008 victory with the 2010 World Cup title, dominated the Group C match for long stretches but struggled to finish at times, while Italy relied on dangerous counterattacks.
''The thing that really disappoints us is that we allowed them to equalize very quickly,'' Italy coach Cesare Prandelli said. ''We were playing the world champions and we should have made them work harder to get back into the game. We gave Spain the chance to score goals. We need to improve, but that's our mentality.''
The draw ended a 14-match winning streak for Spain in competitive matches, which began after a 1-0 loss to Switzerland to open the last World Cup.
Still, it could have been worse.
''I don't leave here frustrated because the effort we made to win this game was tremendous,'' Spain coach Vicente del Bosque said. ''It was a good game, a different kind of game. It was back-and-forth and the draw was the fair result.''
Spain pulled a surprise by starting with no recognized strikers in its lineup, with Fabregas at forward between David Silva and Andres Iniesta - leaving Fernando Torres, Alvaro Negredo and Fernando Llorente on the bench.
''The first one to be surprised was me,'' Fabregas said. ''I was happy to have the opportunity, happy to be able to play. It's been a month and half since I've played. To get the goal was nice.''
Italy countered with an attack of Antonio Cassano and Mario Balotelli and an untested three-man defense.
Di Natale replaced Balotelli in the 56th and scored five minutes later, collecting a pass from Pirlo just as he slipped in between two defenders, then expertly shooting around Spain goalkeeper Iker Casillas.
The 34-year-old Di Natale has scored 20 or more goals the past three seasons with Udinese in Serie A.
Fabregas' goal from the center of the area concluded a series of passes that started with Iniesta giving the ball to Silva, who then found Fabregas cutting toward the goal.
Torres replaced Fabregas in the 74th and nearly scored a minute later but was somehow stripped by Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon near the edge of the area. Appearing indecisive, Torres missed another clear opportunity high in the 85th, a lob shot over the charging Buffon.
Balotelli's aggressiveness drew the attention of Hungarian referee Viktor Kassai, first with a verbal warning after the Italy forward collided with Gerard Pique, then with a yellow card for a foul on Jordi Alba in the 37th.
Balotelli's beat chance came when he dribbled in all alone on goal but waited too long to shoot and was stripped of the ball by Sergio Ramos.
Three minutes later, the 21-year-old Manchester City striker was on the bench.
''When he missed that chance I already had the idea to put Di Natale on because I think we needed to be a bit deeper going forward,'' Prandelli said. ''Nothing to do with a punishment whatsoever.''
On a pleasant evening at the Arena Gdansk near the Baltic Sea, red-clad Spain fans appeared to greatly outnumber Italian supporters, with surprisingly large sections of empty seats in the corner allotted for Azzurri fans.
The Italians, just like when they won the 2006 World Cup, are weathering a widespread scandal.
A week before arriving in Poland, police showed up at the Azzurri's training camp outside Florence to notify defender Domenico Criscito that he was under investigation for match-fixing, and he was then cut from the squad.
Leonardo Bonucci, a defender who started against Spain, is also under investigation. And reports surfaced last week regarding large payments from Buffon to the owner of a tobacco shop that is also a betting parlor, although Buffon has not been charged with any wrongdoing.
Among the 38,869 in attendance were Italy President Giorgio Napolitano and Spain Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, plus former Poland President and Solidarity founder Lech Walesa.
After the match, Napolitano entered Italy's changing room and embraced Buffon.
Spain: Iker Casillas, Alvaro Arbeloa, Gerard Pique, Sergio Ramos, Jordi Alba, Xavi Hernandez, Sergio Busquets, Xabi Alonso, David Silva (Jesus Navas, 65), Cesc Fabregas (Fernando Torres, 74), Andres Iniesta.
Italy: Gianluigi Buffon, Giorgio Chiellini, Daniele De Rossi, Leonardo Bonucci, Emanuele Giaccherini, Claudio Marchisio, Andrea Pirlo, Thiago Motta (Antonio Nocerino, 90), Christian Maggio, Antonio Cassano (Sebastian Giovinco, 65), Mario Balotelli (Antonio Di Natale, 56).