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SOCCER

Spain draws Italy in Group C opener

Italy and Spain have been touted as favorites to advance to the quarterfinals, and they showed that there is little between them as the two sides played to a 1-1 draw at the Arena Gdansk on Sunday to open up play in Group C.

Spain is looking to make history by becoming the first nation to win back-to- back European Championships, in addition to winning three straight major trophies, but its hopes of claiming three points off the bat took a major hit when Antonio Di Natale opened the scoring for the Italians in the second half.

Cesc Fabregas rescued the reigning World and European champions though, leveling the score for Spain in the 64th minute to see the two nations take a point apiece.

"Of course we wanted to win here but I am not leaving feeling frustrated as I thought we put in a good performance; we will leave happy knowing that," said Spain coach Vicente del Bosque. "We finished the game full of eagerness, determination and with chances to win."

Spain lined up with no true striker as Del Bosque deployed a team consisting of six out-and-out midfielders. The lacking presence of a target player made it difficult for the Spaniards to create chances.

Andres Iniesta produced Spain's best chance of the opening period as he linked up with his Barcelona teammate Xavi and volleyed an effort from the top of the box just over the crossbar.

Iniesta came even closer moments after halftime as he found space on the left side of the penalty area and curled a shot across goal, but his effort sailed just inches wide of Gianluigi Buffon's far post.

Spain looked comfortable until a gaffe from Sergio Ramos almost gifted the Italians the lead. His back pass to Iker Casillas was cut out by Mario Balotelli, but the Italian failed to attack with pace and Ramos was able to deny the Manchester City striker a shot on goal.

The writing was on the wall though - Italy went in front shortly after. Di Natale, who had been subbed on for Balotelli moments earlier, latched on to a through ball from Andrea Pirlo and chipped a shot past Casillas for a lead at the hour mark to make an instant impact.

Spain made sure the lead didn't last long as Fabregas equalized four minutes later following a spectacular pass from David Silva. The Manchester City playmaker unlocked Italy's defense to find a darting run from Fabregas, and the Barcelona midfielder made no mistake with the finish, unbalancing Buffon and slipping the shot into the back of the net.

"What disappointed me about this evening was that we allowed them to equalize so quickly," said Italy manager Cesare Prandelli. "We were playing against the world champions but we should have made it more difficult for them after we scored."

Fernando Torres entered the match shortly after and had a good chance to lift Spain to a vital win. He found himself one-on-one with Buffon in the 75th minute but the Italian 'keeper came off his line to make a last-ditch standing challenge to deny the Chelsea striker.

Spain returns to action against Ireland on Thursday, when Italy faces Croatia.