GNIEWINO, Poland (Reuters) - Spain will go into Sunday’s Group C opener against old foes Italy with a swagger that was missing from past encounters after a pivotal moment in their rivalry four years ago.
It is widely accepted that the moment the Spanish turned from underachievers into an all-conquering outfit was when Cesc Fabregas stroked in the decisive penalty in the quarter-final shootout against the Italians at Euro 2008.
Italy had been something of a bogey team for spain until then but, four years later and with continental and world titles under their belts, Vicente del Bosque’s side now hold the upper hand.
“I think it changed the mentality of the national team,” central defender Gerard Pique, who was watching Euro 2008 on holiday in Majorca, told a news conference at Spain’s training base in Gniewino, Poland on Friday.
“Before Spain played to avoid losing but afterwards they played to win,” the 25-year-old said.
Striker Fernando Llorente, who also watched the match in Vienna on television from Spain, added: ”It was a turning point.
“Beating Italy and getting to the semi-finals made us believe in ourselves. After that, we knew we could win and do something historic.”
Neither side has had the ideal preparation for the 2012 edition co-hosted by Poland and Ukraine but it would still be a major surprise if either failed to get through a group that also features Croatia and Ireland.
Bidding to become the first nation to win back-to-back continental titles with a World Cup in between, Spain have lost record scorer David Villa and inspirational centre back Carlos Puyol to injury.
Villa’s likely replacement at centre forward, Fernando Torres, is still recovering from a spectacular loss of form over the past 18 months, while the central defensive pairing of Pique and Sergio Ramos is relatively untested.
Italy, meanwhile, are mired in yet another domestic match fixing scandal that has deprived them of Domenico Criscito after the defender was placed under investigation by police.
The disruption appeared to have affected their form on the pitch as they slipped to a 3-0 reverse against Russia in their final warm-up game on June 1, a third straight friendly defeat under coach Cesare Prandelli.
“It’s normal to be worried,” midfielder Thiago Motta told reporters on Thursday at Italy’s training base in Krakow.
“Three defeats, even in friendlies, is not normal for a team like us,” added the former Barcelona player.
However, Pique dismissed suggestions that Spain will have an easy ride against Italy because of their off-field woes.
“It seems that Italy is wounded but I don’t see it like that,” he said.
”In the past, it has often been the case that they have played best when they have been discounted.
“We will have to be at 100 percent with all five senses focused on the game as we are talking about one of the greats in Europe and the world.”
The Barcelona defender picked out playmaker Andrea Pirlo as the key man for the Italians, while also praising the goal-scoring ability of unpredictable striker Mario Balotelli.
“I believe that a player like Balotelli can win you a match but a player like Pirlo can win you a championship,” he said.
“Pirlo is a complete player. He knows when to attack, when to defend, when to close the game down and when to play on the counter. He is a superb player.”
Additional reporting by Mark Meadows in Krakow, editing by Brian Homewood