AP - Playing for a third straight major title, Spain had to rally for a 1-1 draw against Italy on Sunday at the European Championship.
Antonio Di Natale put Italy in front after an excellent setup from Andrea Pirlo in the 61st minute, but Cesc Fabregas equalized for the defending champions three minutes later by finishing off a dazzling display of Spain’s trademark passing game.
“Being the favorite now is complicated, but in the end we found the character (to earn a draw),” Fabregas said.
Spain, which followed up its Euro 2008 victory with the 2010 World Cup title, dominated the Group C match for long stretches but struggled to finish at times, while Italy relied on dangerous counterattacks.
“The thing that really disappoints us is that we allowed them to equalize very quickly,” Italy coach Cesare Prandelli said. “We were playing the world champions and we should have made them work harder to get back into the game. We gave Spain the chance to score goals. We need to improve, but that’s our mentality.”
The draw ended a 14-match winning streak for Spain in competitive matches, which began after a 1-0 loss to Switzerland to open the last World Cup.
Spain pulled a surprise by starting with no recognized strikers in its lineup, with Fabregas at forward between David Silva and Andres Iniesta _ leaving Fernando Torres, Alvaro Negredo and Fernando Llorente on the bench.
“The first one to be surprised was me,” Fabregas said. “I was happy to have the opportunity, happy to be able to play. It’s been a month and half since I’ve played. To get the goal was nice.”
Italy countered with an attack of Antonio Cassano and Mario Balotelli and an untested three-man defense.
Di Natale replaced Balotelli in the 56th and scored five minutes later, collecting a pass from Pirlo just as he slipped in between two defenders, then expertly shooting around Spain goalkeeper Iker Casillas.
The 34-year-old Di Natale has scored 20 or more goals the past three seasons with Udinese in Serie A.
Fabregas’ goal from the center of the area concluded a series of passes that started with Iniesta giving the ball to Silva, who then found Fabregas cutting toward the goal.
On a pleasant evening at the Arena Gdansk near the Baltic Sea, red-clad Spain fans appeared to greatly outnumber Italian supporters, with surprisingly large sections of empty seats in the corner allotted for Azzurri fans.
The Italians, just like when they won the 2006 World Cup, are weathering a widespread match-fixing scandal.
Among the 38,869 in attendance were Italy President Giorgio Napolitano and Spain Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, plus former Poland President and Solidarity founder Lech Walesa.
After two poor shots from Silva early in the match, Italy had the first real threat with a free kick from Pirlo in the 13th, drawing a diving save from Casillas.
Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon easily stopped a low shot from Iniesta in the 30th, while at the other end Casillas had trouble gathering a volley from Claudio Marchisio in the 36th.
Balotelli’s aggressiveness drew the attention of Hungarian referee Viktor Kassai, first with a verbal warning after the Italy forward collided with Gerard Pique, then with a yellow card for a foul on Jordi Alba in the 37th.
There were two more chances just before halftime at both ends. First, Iniesta lifted a shot over the bar with the tip of his foot, then Thiago Motta headed a shot at Casillas.
Spain showed more decisiveness to start the second half, with Fabregas and Iniesta producing dangerous opportunities in the 50th and 51st.
A few minutes later, Balotelli had his best opportunity of the match, dribbling in all alone on goal, but the 21-year-old Manchester City striker waited too long to shoot and Sergio Ramos caught up to strip him of the ball.
Three minutes later, Balotelli was on the bench.
“When he missed that chance I already had the idea to put Di Natale on because I think we needed to be a bit deeper going forward,” Prandelli said. “Nothing to do with a punishment whatsoever.”
Torres replaced Fabregas in the 74th and nearly scored a minute later but was somehow stripped by Buffon near the edge of the area.
Di Natale then had a great chance to restore Italy’s lead in the 77th, but missed a difficult volley from the edge of the box.
Appearing indecisive, Torres missed another clear opportunity high in the 85th, a lob shot over the charging Buffon.
Spain: Iker Casillas, Alvaro Arbeloa, Gerard Pique, Sergio Ramos, Jordi Alba, Xavi Hernandez, Sergio Busquets, Xabi Alonso, David Silva (Jesus Navas, 65), Cesc Fabregas (Fernando Torres, 74), Andres Iniesta.
Italy: Gianluigi Buffon, Giorgio Chiellini, Daniele De Rossi, Leonardo Bonucci, Emanuele Giaccherini, Claudio Marchisio, Andrea Pirlo, Thiago Motta (Antonio Nocerino, 90), Christian Maggio, Antonio Cassano (Sebastian Giovinco, 65), Mario Balotelli (Antonio Di Natale, 56).