Spain vs Italy: On Asensio, Morata, Villa and Piqué
Tonight's Spain-Italy clash at the Bernabéu is the crunch fixture in Group G. After all, only the winners of each group qualify automatically for the World Cup; finish second, and you have to fight it out for a spot in Russia in a two-legged play-off with another runner-up. As things stand, Spain have the edge over the Italians: we came away from Turin with a draw (although boy, did we deserve the three points) and have the cushion of a superior goal difference: +18 compared to the Azzurri's +14. However, a defeat today would be a nigh-on irreparable setback, and a stalemate would leave us clinging on to that +4 goal difference, which stands us in good stead but is by no means decisive. After this game, we both have three fixtures to go against weaker sides, which are all about boosting that goal tally.
Spain boosted by absence of defensive stalwart Chiellini
We can take heart from the Under-21s, who won 3-0 in Toledo last night, while the bookies are backing us at €1.80 per euro bet, with an Italy victory priced at €5.25. Also, Giorgio Chiellini has been ruled out for the visitors. One should never take pleasure in a player's injury, but it's a relief that he won't be there. Álvaro Morata has told El País that facing his old club-mate is like being shut in a cage with a gorilla and being tasked with stealing its lunch. So, no Chiellini. And Morata? Will he play, or will Julen Lopetegui go for Marco Asensio as a false nine? That seems to be the key question. Going with a false nine often works well against three-man defences, which - though it isn't a given they'll do so tonight - is how Italy tend to set up. With Cesc Fàbregas in the role, it worked a treat in the final of Euro 2012 in Kiev.
A plea to Spain's home support: Let's avoid a repeat of the Piqué jeers
And David Villa? On the left, perhaps? It's hard to know. Lopetegui even insisted on shielding Thursday's rehearsal with tarpaulin sheets to keep his intentions a secret. The days when the line-ups were announced in advance are long gone. It was legendary Liverpool manager Bill Shankly who, when asked about his XI for a game against AC Milan, quipped that, if it were down to him, he wouldn't let his opponents know what time kick-off was, let alone his selection plans. One man certain to be in the hosts' team is Gerard Piqué, for whom his international colleagues, the Spanish sports minister and even Tomás Roncero have issued pleas for the right treatment from the home fans. The kind deserved by a player who has been an exemplary figure for this team, Spain, which he is as dedicated to as anyone. Please: don't jeer him. Don't be party to such ridiculous behaviour.
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