Spain and Italy psych each other before cruncher

VIENNA: Echoing the thoughts of the majority of the Spanish public, Italy defender Christian Panucci believes his side have the mental edge over Spain ahead of tomorrow's Euro 2008 quarter-final here.

Spain are renowned for bottling it on the big occasion and despite their fine form so far in the tournament – they have three wins out of three - there is always this nagging doubt that they will crack when it matters most.

Two years ago they won all three group games at the World Cup in Germany only to lose to a seemingly out-of-sorts France in the second round.

More pertinently, perhaps, Spain have not beaten Italy at a major competition for 88 years and on three previous occasions have been knocked out of the quarter-finals of a major tournament on June 22, the day of the Italy clash.

In a recent poll before the end of the group stages, Spaniards voted Italy as the team they least wanted to face in the quarter-finals after Romania and France.

And Panucci agrees that Italy have an advantage when it comes to the big competitions.

“I can understand why the Spanish people don’t want to play against Italy because in the past it has not been easy for Spain to play against Italy in these big competitions,” he said.

“Italy are very strong and I can understand why the Spanish people say this.”

Having kept Thierry Henry and Karim Benzema largely quite in their last match alongside Giorgio Chiellini, Panucci will now have to deal with David Villa and Fernando Torres.

“Torres and Villa are two great strikers for sure but Henry and Benzema are also a great pair and we know how that turned out,” he said defiantly.

“Chiellini and I are ready. He’s on his way to becoming one of the best defenders in the world.”

Italy have some problems, though, with midfield pair Andrea Pirlo and Gennaro Gattuso both suspended while centre-back Andrea Barzagli has been ruled out of the tournament after undergoing a left knee operation.

Having already lost captain Fabio Cannavaro to injury before the tournament began, Italy will be far from full strength.

Spain coach Luis Aragones has been trying to turn up the heat on Italy by emphasising the gravity of Pirlo’s loss, while also playing down that of Gattuso.

“I admit that Pirlo is a great player. But to say that Gattuso is also, I would not agree,” he said.

“Italy have several Gattusos but only one Pirlo. If Gattuso is a great player, then I’m a priest.

“Pirlo is a creator whereas Italy have plenty of more defensive-minded types such as Gattuso. But Pirlo can also have a bad day – and the player who replaces him could also have the match of his life against us.”

Gattuso did not take the news personally, even joking about Aragones’s possible future choice of career.

“I hope he doesn’t become a priest at his age. It would be better for him to see out his remaining years as a normal person,” he said.

“For me what he said is a compliment because he was asked if I was an important player and he replied that I was a hard working and combative player – he just underlined my qualities.”

Italy will certainly miss the midfield pair though; Pirlo for his creativity, Gattuso for his energy and both of them for their experience.

Spain are at full strength but have been showing signs of tension with Aragones and Sergio Ramos involved in a heated debate before training on Thursday.

“Sergio Ramos is a great player but sometimes off the field he does things he shouldn’t,” rebuked Aragones afterwards.

Spain are on the brink of history, though, as a victory over Italy would represent a record 10 straight wins, beating the mark they matched with the group victory over Greece on Wednesday.

They have lost two previous World Cup quarter-finals to Italy while their only trophy remains the European Championship in 1964.

Italy have won the world title four times and succeeded Spain as European champions in 1968. – AFP

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