Published June 10, 2012
Spain's gamble of starting without a recognized striker almost backfired when the holders needed a Cesc Fabregas equalizer to salvage a 1-1 draw against Italy in their Euro 2012 Group C opener on Sunday.
Antonio Di Natale came off the bench to fire the Italians ahead on the hour but they were in front for only four minutes before Fabregas latched on to a clever David Silva pass and fired past Gianluigi Buffon.
The stalemate ended Spain's run of 14 straight wins in competitive matches and Italy's three consecutive defeats, all in friendlies in the build-up to the finals.
Spain coach Vicente del Bosque surprised many by leaving Fernando Torres out of his starting lineup, opting for an attacking midfield trio of Fabregas, Andres Iniesta and Silva with playmaker Xavi pulling the strings in the middle.
Asked about playing without a striker, Fabregas told Spanish TV: "The first one to be surprised was me but I was pleased to be given a chance as I have not really played much in more than a month. I am happy to have found my scoring touch again as it deserted me a bit towards the end of the season."
Del Bosque added: "What we wanted to do was look for superiority in the midfield and we know that Fabregas and Silva have the ability to get into scoring positions. It didn't work out too badly and Fabregas did some great work."
The world champions struggled to get their slick passing game going on a heavy-looking pitch and it was Italy who created the clearest chances in a cagey first half at the new amber-colored stadium in the Polish port city of Gdansk.
Playmaker Andrea Pirlo tested goalkeeper Iker Casillas with a low freekick in the 13th minute and the Spain captain had to be alert to keep out a 33rd-minute Antonio Cassano strike and a swerving volley from Claudio Marchisio three minutes later.
Italy came close to an opening goal moments before halftime when Thiago Motta rose unmarked and his powerful header from Cassano's cross drew a fine reflex save from Casillas.
The second half began with a bang when Fabregas sent Iniesta clear on the left of the penalty area but his fierce drive brushed Buffon's fingertips and flew past the post.
A Sergio Ramos mistake then allowed Mario Balotelli to home in on goal but the striker, who had a disappointing game, dithered, allowing Ramos to sprint back and dispossess him.
Italy coach Cesare Prandelli hauled Balotelli off and almost immediately Pirlo's superb pass released Di Natale and he finished clinically into the corner.
"I don't know what happened to Balotelli when he found himself one-on-one with Casillas," said Prandelli. "He probably had two options but as an attacker in those situations you should only have one. There he should have passed to Cassano.
"But there will be no punishment."
After Fabregas's leveler, substitute Torres squandered two golden chances when he only had the keeper to beat but an outrushing Buffon was able to clear the first and his attempted chip landed on top of the netting on the second.
Spain are bidding to become the first nation to win back-to-back continental titles and next play Ireland, while Italy meet Croatia.
(Reporting by Iain Rogers, editing by Justin Palmer and Ken Ferris)