TEAMtalk assesses the key talking points after Cesc Fabregas rescued a 1-1 draw for Spain against Group C rivals Italy at Euro 2012.
World and European champions Spain looked in trouble when Italy striker Antonio Di Natale came off the bench and put the Azzurri ahead in the 60th minute on Sunday. Thankfully for Vicente del Bosque's side, Fabregas was on hand four minutes later to spare the holders' blushes. We look back on the lessons offered up by Sunday's encounter in Gdansk.
On the face of it, Spain's headline-grabbing decision to play with no out-and-out striker appeared bizarre, especially as they struggled for goals even when first-choice forward David Villa was fit. However, the formation could work provided the midfielders push ahead of the play. This was not evident in a tight and nervy first half, with Fabregas, Andres Iniesta and Xavi all appearing to be unsure when to break forward and when to hold. This meant when one of them did get the ball in advanced positions, there was no-one in the penalty area to finish moves off. When the game opened up after the break, Fabregas' expertly-timed forward run was found perfectly by David Silva and the game was levelled up by the former Arsenal man.
What now for Balotelli?
The Manchester City forward was handed the opportunity by Italy coach Cesare Prandelli to claim a permanent role in the starting line-up, having been named to lead the line against Spain. But Mario Balotelli did little to suggest he was ready for such a role. In his defence, he showed plenty of commitment and determination, but never looked like scoring. This was clearly illustrated when he stole the ball from Sergio Ramos, but took an age to get his shot off before the Spain defender got back to tackle him. Within minutes of that, he was replaced by Di Natale, who promptly put Italy ahead. Could that goal end Balotelli's hopes of starting another game in this tournament? It's too early to say, and he probably deserves another chance. However, at the top level of football you have to take your chances. And as he sat on the bench watching his team-mate make a strong claim for his place, it's likely no one realised that more than Balotelli.
De Rossi the 'spare man'
The decision to play Roma midfielder Daniele de Rossi as part of a back three was a curious one by Italy boss Prandelli, but it had one key advantage for the Azzurri - the 28-year-old's excellent distribution. Andrea Pirlo remains among the finest deep-lying playmakers in the game and is traditionally the man responsible for making Italy tick. But while the Juventus midfielder frequently became bogged down in Spain's midfield melee it was De Rossi who had the time and space to pick long-range passes and get Italy up the field. Whether the tactic would prove appropriate against, say, the Republic of Ireland next week with their two strikers is debatable. But it had its benefits in Gdansk on Sunday.
While Spain lacked strikers, they also lacked any natural wide men, with the aforementioned Villa again charged with that responsibly when fit. With Jesus Navas on the bench, full-back Jordi Alba was perhaps their most natural wide option. But with Spain's midfield attempting to push forward onto Italy's three centre backs, Alba appeared reluctant to leave his side short at the back. Italy also lack any real wide men, with Prandelli usually preferring a floating central midfield diamond. However, his decision to field a 3-5-2 formation merely added to an already congested centre of the park. It was full of extremely talented players, but with precious little room to operate in. The resulting stalemate was inevitable.
Oh no Fernando
Fernando Torres will have been understandably frustrated to start from the bench while midfielders were deployed in his position. But when he did finally make it on to the field, his eventful 15 minute cameo was painfully familiar to those who have followed his career over recent years and perhaps justified Vicente Del Bosque's decision. The Chelsea star was a willing runner, but missed three gilt-edged chances to give Spain the win, showing a lack of confidence and ruthlessness in front of goal - something sadly absent from his game for a few years now. To complete a miserable night for the 28-year-old, he was booked for a flailing arm in the direction of de Rossi late on.
Mixed bag from Silva
The Manchester City man was not quite at his sparkling best, although his pass for Fabregas' goal was a typically deft touch. He's been accused of not shooting enough at times for City, and that was the case early on as dallied before being crowded out by a phalanx of Blue shirts. He did have a go subsequently, and set the goal up, but he was replaced as Del Bosque decided to try another tack. Will he discard him like he did after the opening game in South Africa?
In Spain, the press have dubbed him 'Don Andres' and it is so easy to see why. The Barcelona maestro was imperious for his country against the Italians. Del Bosque's decision not to field a recognised striker meant that midfield was congested. But all great players find time, and space, which is exactly what he continually did. He single-handedly at times drove Spain forward and was a persistent thorn for the Italian defence. His fleet-footed dribbling skills were evident as he ghosted past Spanish defenders at will and so was his courage. The latter attribute is maybe something that is not always highlighted by the press - he was the subject of some rough tackles from the Italians, but it never dented his desire for wanting the ball. A quality performance from a quality performer.
Fabregas' contrasting fortunes
Cesc Fabregas cut a frustrated figure in the first half as Spain's striker-free approach ran aground on the Italian defence. But a shot on target after the break heralded a much improved display capped by a well-taken goal. However, you have to wonder what Fabregas might have made of the chances that his replacement, Fernando Torres, spurned in the game's closing stages.