Spain’s era of dominance at the European Championship came to an end Monday when Italy beat the two-time defending champion 2-0 in the round of 16.
Italy deserved its victory and was impressive from the start at Stade de France, stifling Spain’s attacking intent and creating several scoring opportunities with its slick interplay.
The victory meant Italy avoided a third consecutive elimination at the European Championship to Spain, and secure a quarterfinal clash against another old foe, Germany. That side of the draw also includes France and Iceland — the latter the surprise team of the tournament following its shock 2-1 victory over England on Monday.
“It was definitely a great performance,” Italy coach Antonio Conte said. “They did something fantastic tonight. They are great men and wonderful footballers.”
Giorgio Chiellini, a member of Italy’s resilient defense, put his team ahead in the 33rd minute, when he poked the ball across the line after Spain goalkeeper David de Gea couldn’t hold on to a free kick by Eder.
“There were several games we needed to take revenge for,” said Chiellini, one of four Italians who lost to Spain the last two times. “But we also wanted and deserved this victory.”
In the second half, Spain showed more menace and came close to equalizing on a couple of occasions. Sergio Ramos nearly scored with a header from close range in the team’s first clear chance of the game, and Buffon had to make a difficult save on a powerful shot by Andres Iniesta in the 76th minute.
Buffon also made another impressive save in the 90th minute when he managed to get down and save Gerard Pique’s close-range strike.
“We waited too long before killing the game off,” Chiellini said. “We deserved to finish it earlier, and we suffered in the last 15 minutes.”
As Spain swept forward in search of the elusive equalizer, Italy counterattacked to put the match beyond doubt. Graziano Pelle sealed the victory — Italy’s first competitive triumph over Spain since the 1994 World Cup — with his second goal of the tournament after a cross by Matteo Darmian in second-half injury time.
“We have to accept the loss and move forward. It wasn’t meant to be,” Spain coach Vicente Del Bosque said. “In sport sometimes the opponent is better but it’s not because we haven’t played without enough hunger.”
It was Italy’s first win over La Roja at the European Championship since it was defeated comprehensively by the Spaniards 4-0 in the 2012 final. Italy had also been eliminated by Spain in a penalty shootout in the quarterfinals at Euro 2008.
The result brings an end to Spain’s unprecedented success at the European Championship following its two consecutive victories in 2008 and 2012. Two years ago, defending its 2010 World Cup, Spain was dumped out of the World Cup in Brazil at the group stage.
Spain entered Monday’s game surrounded by doubts after losing 2-1 to Croatia in its final group game, and again it wasn’t able to impose the passing game that’s been behind its recent success.
“We have to accept the disappointment. They were more efficient in the decisive moments,” Spain midfielder Andres Iniesta said. “In the second half we played more like ourselves but we paid the price of also having to be careful on defense.”
Spain will now have to focus on qualifying for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, although it’s unclear what the Spanish squad will look like after the elimination in France. Many of the top players who have been with the squad the past few years may not return. It’s also uncertain whether Del Bosque will remain in charge.
Italy arrived in France written off by critics back but it’s now in the hunt to win its first European Championship since 1968. Italy will play Germany in Bordeaux on Saturday in a rematch of the 2012 semifinal, which it won by 2-1.
It won’t take long before Italy and Spain resume their rivalry as they have been drawn together in the same qualifying group for the World Cup.