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Spain advances to knockouts with deserved win over Azzurri


GELSENKIRCHEN, Germany (AP) — Europe beware — Spain might just be back.

The three-time European champion advanced to the round of 16 at Euro 2024 after a 1-0 win against holders Italy on Thursday.

A 55th-minute own goal by Riccardo Calafiori settled the Group B game at the Veltins Arena in Gelsenkirchen. But that didn’t begin to tell the full story of a statement performance from Spain, which surely marks it as one of the favorites to win a record-extending fourth European Championship.

“I think it was the best Spain performance I have taken charge of,” coach Luis de la Fuente said. “I don’t see a ceiling on this team. The sky is the limit.”

Spain totally dominated defending champion Italy, with 16-year-old winger Lamine Yamal further enhancing his reputation as one of soccer’s most exciting young stars.

Player of the match Nico Williams also tormented Italy’s defenders and was the width of the crossbar away from scoring in the second half.

It took Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma to keep the score down with a string of fine saves until inadvertently pushing the ball into the legs of Calafiori, who couldn’t prevent it from ricocheting into his own goal.

“They deserved to win and we were never in the game,” Italy coach Luciano Spalletti said. “There was too much of a gulf. We were constantly stretched, we were never able to squeeze the gaps between the various units and they were able to cause us problems. They caused us more problems than the score line suggests, let’s not beat around the bush.”

Spain produced a throwback performance that brought to mind the years when it ruled international soccer when winning back-to-back Euros and the World Cup from 2008 through 2012.

Having failed to dominate possession for the first time in 136 competitive games in its opening 3-0 win over Croatia, Spain was back to its old ways in starving Italy of the ball and dictating play in a largely lopsided game.

Chances came thick and fast in the first half, with Donnarumma pulling off a number of saves to keep the score goalless.

For all of Spain’s superiority, it took Calafiori’s own goal to break the deadlock after halftime.

Donnarumma pushed Alvaro Morata’s glancing header into the legs of Calafiori, who could only watch as the ball rebounded into the back of the net.

Williams was then millimeters away from extending the lead with a curling shot that hit the bar.

“We dominated across the board,” Williams said. “Italy are an excellent side but we played very well and deserved to win.”

Williams is just one of the bright young stars in De la Fuente’s team. Yamal is another and the Barcelona teenager, who has a $1 billion buyout clause, showcased his talents with slaloming runs and tricks.

Barcelona midfielder Pedri looks like the modern-day answer to Spain great Andres Iniesta.

“I want to underline the quality of this generation of players, particularly those in this squad. Spanish players are the best in the world,” De la Fuente said.

Spain has endured frustrating times since it last won the Euros in 2012, with early exits from the last three World Cups.

At the last Euros, it lost on penalties to Italy in the semifinals.

But there have been signs of its resurgence in recent times, having won the UEFA Nations League last year.

Now it looks well-positioned to push for another major title in Germany.

“Essentially we haven’t achieved anything yet,” De la Fuente said. “Football can be very cruel. We have to be cautious, humble and show resect.”

England drew 1-1 with Denmark in Group C after Harry Kane scored and then made a mistake that led to the Danes’ leveler. Kane struck a record-extending 64th goal for his country to fire England ahead in Frankfurt. But his loose pass then allowed Morten Hjulmand to equalize from long range.

In the other Group C game, Luka Jovic scored in stoppage time to salvage a 1-1 for Serbia against Slovenia.

England leads the group on four points and is likely to advance to the round of 16.


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