By Toby Davis
PARIS (Reuters) – Like an ailing heavyweight, Spain and their hopes of a third straight European title ended in a tame surrender as their 2-0 defeat by Italy represented the definitive end to a golden era in their footballing history.
A first-half effort from defender Giorgio Chiellini and a stoppage-time goal by striker Graziano Pelle sent the Azzurri into the quarter-finals at Euro 2016 and left Spain to mull over a second successive failure on the international stage.
They came into the tournament hoping to re-establish their status as the game’s dominant power and prove their shock early exit at the 2014 World Cup was the exception not the rule.
Their failure, however, to land a glove on an ageing Italy side showed the Spain team that won back-to-back European titles either side of their 2010 World Cup triumph, might still float like a butterfly, but no longer stings like a bee.
Spain were second best from the start against an Italy side, who were better organised, more effective on the ball and ruthless in every department.
The Italian defence, regimented like no other in the world game, never looked like being dragged out of position by their opponents’ passing patterns.
While the Spanish midfield axis of Sergio Busquets and Andres Iniesta, for so long the engine room of the national team’s dominance, looked slow and ponderous.
Spain used to make other sides chase shadows as they passed the ball around them but, until Italy scored on Monday, the two combatants had equally shared possession.
“In the first half, we were more concerned about watching them play than playing our game,” said Iniesta.
In attack, Spain’s Alvaro Morata was forlorn and isolated, a pale shadow of the players who led the line in the heyday of Spain’s dominance, such as David Villa and Fernando Torres, and only when he left the field did they flicker into life.
The Spanish fans packed into the Stade de France will not need statistics to tell them this Spain team was a long way short of the champions that had gone before, but the numbers still paint a picture of their demise.
These were the first goals Spain conceded in the knockout rounds of a major tournament since Zinedine Zidane rounded off a 3-1 victory for France in the last 16 of the 2006 World Cup.
The defeat was Spain’s fourth in their last seven World Cup and European Championship matches, which is one more than in their previous 31 major tournament games.
This was also their first competitive defeat by Italy since the 1994 World Cup and only their second to the Italians in 12 encounters, including friendlies.
“They were probably better,” Spain coach Vicente del Bosque, said. “They don’t play great football but they are strong in the air, very physical and they were dangerous.
“We tried everything but we couldn’t score.”
The 65-year-old Del Bosque, who steered Spain to success at the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012, is reported to be mulling his future which he will discuss with the football federation.
Should he walk away, it would be a further break from the golden era that is now firmly in Spain’s past.
(Reporting by Toby Davis; Editing by Ken Ferris)