Spain’s gamble of starting without a recognised striker almost backfired when the holders needed a Cesc Fabregas equaliser to salvage a 1-1 draw against Italy in their Euro 2012 Group C opener.
Antonio Di Natale came off the bench to fire the Italians ahead on the hour in Gdansk but they were in front for only four minutes before Fabregas latched on to a clever David Silva pass and fired past Gianluigi Buffon.
Spain coach Vicente del Bosque surprised many by leaving Fernando Torres out of his starting line-up, opting for an attacking midfield trio of Fabregas, Andres Iniesta and Silva with playmaker Xavi pulling the strings in the middle.
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-coloured stadium in the Polish port city.
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 mistake by Sergio Ramos then allowed Mario Balotelli to home in on goal but the striker, who had a disappointing game, dithered too long 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.
After Fabregas’s leveller, 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. – Reuters