Contain Iniesta and Italy can win, says Neil Numphreys
Conte must outthink and outwit Iniesta to win
ROUND OF 16
ITALY v SPAIN
(Tonight, 11.50pm, Singtel TV Ch 142 & StarHub TV Ch 220 - Eleven EURO)
The Euro 2016 final has come four games too early.
Vicente del Bosque's effete beauties face Antonio Conte's beasts in a clash that should serve as a defibrillator for the knockout stages.
The tournament isn't flat-lining, but it is faltering.
Wales, Northern Ireland, Portugal and Croatia appeared to be in on a private joke, pranking the poor punters who were forced to sit through the stultifying affairs.
But the Spaniards and the Italians are exceptions to a dull rule, for entirely different reasons.
Italy and Spain promise an engrossing contest between the manager and the magician; the impish genius against the glowering man in black, both united in an identical cause.
Andres Iniesta lifts a transitional side with an extra-terrestrial vision borrowed from a comic book. It's not just X-ray. Iniesta sees every which way.
Conte is plotting to stop him, relishing another opportunity to test his tactical nous and remind Chelsea once again that they are getting so much more than a sartorial Italian in a sharp suit.
They're hiring the most accomplished manager at this tournament. Intriguingly, wonderfully, the best coach takes on the best artist. One wields a whiteboard, the other a blank canvas.
As Iniesta prepares another masterpiece, Conte stands poised with an eraser.
Like the Barcelona playmaker, Italy's departing coach must calibrate something greater than the sum of its parts and engineer a victory with an average side.
His back three of Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini has every other nation glowering at the Italian penalty box with green-eyed envy, but Portugal boast the greatest player at the tournament and England are blessed with the most talented, youthful squad in a generation.
Both nations are still struggling to gel. Conte maximises his resources, and limited resources at that, like no other.
He underestimated the Republic of Ireland, a mistake he'll obviously not repeat against Spain, but his tactical choices have otherwise been faultless.
His back three, forming a horseshoe around Daniele De Rossi, literally creates Catenaccio. The famed defensive strategy, so often used to describe a sweeper system, means "lock" or "door bolt".
With De Rossi and Gianluigi Buffon either side of the Juventus trio, the Italians have nailed the door shut, keeping clean sheets against both Belgium and Sweden (most of the first 11 were rested in the Ireland game.)
But the approach should not be construed as defensive. Antonio Candreva has run himself into a best 11 of the tournament so far along the right flank. His enterprise underlines a positive counter-attacking philosophy, rather than a "sit and soak" exercise in tedium.
Now Conte turns his attention to Iniesta, rather like Darth Vader targeting a cherubic Luke Skywalker, a dark, shadowy figure aware of the creative force of another.
Like Skywalker, appearances deceive. On the seemingly quiet left flank, still waters run deep. Iniesta loves a scrap with his mates.
He brings the nuance. Sergio Busquets brings the knuckledusters.
Together, they present a formidable alliance, silky smooth with steel toe-capped boots.
If Busquets wins possession, he gives it to Iniesta, ever the enthusiastic water carrier. And Iniesta has the option of swinging low to Nolito or David Silva, or swinging it towards the runaway chariot up front.
Alvaro Morata, with three goals in three games, has added a fresh dimension and a greater attacking urgency to Spain's occasionally ponderous play.
He's after the Golden Boot. His nation eyes greater glory.
But it all begins with Iniesta. It could end with the Italian in the dugout.
De Rossi is likely to get guard-dog duties, with his master throwing him bones marked "Iniesta" and "Busquets" and he'll respond accordingly, with tongue flapping and boots flying.
Small children be advised. Central midfield will feature mature content tomorrow morning.
Still, Conte's instructions are straightforward, but hard to execute. Squeeze the little man and squash the Spanish soul.
Better teams than Italy have tried and failed, but perhaps not many better managers.
Conte has already made a little go a long way. If he can go past Iniesta, the Italians can finally exorcise the demons of that final defeat four years ago.
Euro 2016 deserves, and desperately needs, a memorable game and it could come with this glorious clash of intellects.
Great minds really do think alike. But in this case, only one can prevail.
Spain lose to Croatia, but gain two extra days' rest
Spain forward Nolito insists the two-time defending European champions have no reason to fear a blockbuster Euro 2016 last-16 clash with old foes Italy in Paris tonight (Singapore time).
A shock defeat by Croatia saw Spain lose out on top spot in Group D, after starting the tournament in impressive fashion with victories over the Czech Republic and Turkey.
"We weren't so great before, nor are we so bad now," said the Celta Vigo frontman, who is a target for Pep Guardiola's Manchester City.
"We know how this works. We can't look back, we have a difficult game ahead of us, but Spain are Spain, we play good football, we've got a good team. We respect everyone, but we don't fear anyone."
Ivan Perisic's late winner for Croatia in Bordeaux forced Spain from a dream part of the draw into a devilishly difficult half that could also involve a quarter-final against world champions Germany and a semi-final clash with hosts France.
However, Nolito believes the extra two days off gained by losing to the Croats could help a Spanish side worn down by the toils of a long season.
"These rest days have helped us. It's in our hands, but the route is difficult."
Despite a first competitive defeat since October 2014, Spain remain strong favourites to make the last eight.
However, having seen an unfancied Italy side sweep aside Belgium in their opening game on the way to topping Group E, Atletico Madrid midfielder Koke insisted Spain's chances of going through are no more than "50-50".
"In a game with two teams as big as this there are no favourites. It will be a very tight match, it is a huge game and we will have to suffer to win. It's 50-50.
"Against Italy we need to go out to win. We need to show that this team has the hunger to win."