Football: More than a friendly between Italy and Spain

ROME, Aug 9, 2011 (AFP) - Neither the Italian nor Spanish leagues are up and running yet and it's only a friendly but both sides are taking their international clash here on Wednesday very seriously.

Italy host the world champions in their toughest test since Cesare Prandelli took over from Marcello Lippi following their World Cup disaster in South Africa just over a year ago.

The Azzurri arrived as the reigning champions but their defence petered out feebly as they failed to win any of three group games, unable to beat even New Zealand.

Spain on the other hand proved beyond all question that they're the best team out there at the moment.

Such has been their and Barcelona's dominance -- most of the Spain team also line up for Barca -- that many feel next season's European Championships in Poland and Ukraine, where Spain are also the reigning champions, will be little more than a procession for the Iberians.

And while they have won every one of their Euro 2012 qualification group matches, twice in the last year they have proved remarkably brittle in friendlies.

Both Argentina and Portugal put four goals past them in friendlies and although they won comfortably away to the United States and Colombia in June, they may have lost some of their air of invincibility, certainly when nothing is riding on the game.

And Prandelli is definitely taking this game seriously as he looks to continue the undoubted development his team have shown, although admittedly mostly against modest opposition.

"I want to see character and courage in winning back the ball and then using it," he said.

"I'm interested to see where we're at. Of course Spain begin with an advantage from the work they've done over the years right from the junior national teams.

"But this match will certainly serve us."

Spain's Andres Iniesta also claims that despite the importance of preparing for the beginning of their respective league campaigns, both the Italian and Spanish players will be up for it.

"It's true that we're at the beginning of the season but there's always an extra motivation playing against Italy," said the Barcelona star.

"They're one of the best teams in the world and this is one of those games you always want to play in.

"I expect it to be an intense game as it always is against Italy, and even more so because they're at home."

However, with the Spanish Supercup due to begin at the weekend (it's played over two legs) between the country's two biggest rivals, Barca and Real Madrid, the international friendly has perhaps taken a back seat in terms of importance.

Spain have been hit by a major withdrawal from each camp.

First Real's Sergio Ramos pulled out of the squad and then so too did Barca's Xavi.

Prandelli is not without his own problems for having overlooked his former charge at Fiorentina, veteran striker Alberto Gilardino.

La Viola's coach Sinisa Mihajlovic hit out at Prandelli for having selected two players from Serie B but not Gilardino -- although the two in question are a full-back and a midfielder and not in direct competition for Gilardino's place.

"Gilardino is one of the best in the world in getting behind a defence and with lots of balls into the box," said Prandelli.

"But against Spain I need forwards with other characteristics. (Angelo) Palombo (whose team Sampdoria have only just been relegated) is not a Serie B player and (Torino's Angelo) Ogbonna has incredible ability."

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