Key defender Giorgio Chiellini insists Italy’s confidence remains intact as the beaten 2012 finalists prepare to beat their “bogey team” Spain to a Euro 2016 quarterfinal spot on Monday.
“It’s a shame we’re meeting each other so early in the tournament,” Chiellini told journalists on Friday.
“But it will be a great game. It will be tight, but it’s a knockout game and we’re ready to give it everything to try and keep our campaign going.”
Italy, considered no-hopers in the lead-up to the tournament, upset predictions with a great 2-0 opening win over Belgium to book their place in the last 16 with a 1-0 win over Sweden.
The Azzurris’ confidence appeared shaken after the Republic of Ireland shocked what was an Italy ‘B’ team 1-0 in Lille to secure their last 16 berth in dramatic fashion.
Practically overnight, Italy “went from heroes to zeroes”, Chiellini said.
But the big Juventus defender, who successfully shackled Zlatan Ibrahimovic on the way to beating Sweden in Toulouse last week, said the negative press has bounced off the squad.
Although he admits Spain have the better head-to-head record from their past five meetings at major championships, he said Italy would give it everything to end their opponents’ hopes of a record third consecutive crown.
“Against all expectations, we’ve got this far after beating Belgium and then Sweden and now we face Spain, who are back-to-back European champions as well as World Cup winners,” Chiellini said.
“In a way, they’re our bogey team. They haven’t conceded a goal against us (in open play) since (Antonio) Di Natale scored against them in the group stages of Euro 2012.”
“But let’s keep things in perspective. The Ireland match, with all respect to them, didn’t really count for us.”
“And if we play to our potential, give it everything and limit them (Spain) where they are strong, I think we can create something special.”
Spain lead head-to-heads
After their promising start, Italy’s unlikely title credentials face the stiffest of tests at the Stade de France on Monday.
In five previous encounters at major finals, including the Confederations Cup, Spain have prevailed three times for one loss and one draw.
Del Bosque’s men notably routed Italy 4-0 in the final of Euro 2012, when the sides also met in the group stages -- Cesc Fabregas levelling for Spain minutes after Di Natale’s 61st minute opener for the Azzurri to secure a 1-1 draw.
Four years earlier, the sides played out a scoreless draw in a Euro 2008 quarterfinal clash in Vienna, with Spain winning 4-2 on penalties after ‘keeper Iker Casillas denied Daniele De Rossi and Di Natale.
Having also lost a Confederations Cup semifinal to Spain on penalties in 2013, the balance is tipped decidedly in Spain’s favour.
Indeed, Italy’s last victory over Spain in a major finals was a 2-1 win in the quarterfinals of the 1994 World Cup, when Roberto Baggio scored a late winner to send his side on their way to the final, where they lost to Brazil after Baggio’s momentous penalty miss.
Spain also have to raise morale after an unwelcome 2-1 defeat to Croatia robbed them of top spot in Group D and a potentially easier path to the final.
It means the winners of Monday’s clash could face Germany in the quarterfinals and hosts France in the last four.
But Italy coach Antonio Conte was defiant after their loss in Lille, saying: “A last-16 match against Spain should excite us and we need to play like we did against Belgium, against a side who are supposedly superior.”
While fans will expect Chiellini to shackle Spain striker Alvaro Morata, until recently his teammate at Juventus for the past two seasons, he admits the whole Italy team will be needed to succeed.
“I wish him well for the rest of his carer but I hope he has a bad match on Monday!” said Chiellini, to laughs.
“He’s a special kind of guy and a player who, as well as having great skills, is only going to get better.
“But it’s a knockout match and we can’t just concentrate on Morata.”