The opening match of the Round of 16 at Egypt 2009 could hardly be more intriguing, pitting together old adversaries Spain and Italy. The European duo have the greatest respect for each other and with so little to choose between the sides, victory in Cairo will most likely hinge on the finest of details.
Incentives for Italy
For an indication of just how close Monday's meeting might prove you only have to go back four months to the final of the Mediterranean Games in Pescara, a match *La Roja *edged 2-1 with a goal in the fifth minute of injury time. "I remember the game well", Italy defender Michelangelo Albertazzi tells FIFA.com. "We came close to beating them but we ended up losing. Now we have a wonderful opportunity to get our revenge."
His coach Francesco Rocca knows only too well how difficult that task will be for his side. "We're coming up against one of the favourites for the title. They're the only team to have won all their matches in the group phase and they have one of the best records at youth level. It's going to be a very tough game."
Albertazzi, who plays his club football for AC Milan and is Italy's leading scorer in Egypt with two goals, also has the greatest respect for the Spaniards. "Technically they are a great side, and their biggest strength is the ability they have to retain possession," he says before issuing a warning to the men in red. "They have some good players in every area but we are convinced we can beat them and keep progressing at the tournament."
As far as the 18-year-old Bologna-born centre-half is concerned, the key to conquering Spain lies in the battle for midfield supremacy. "What we need to do to beat them is cut off their possession at source. If we can prevent their playmakers from settling into the game, then we'll have a better chance."
Though he nods in agreement like a doting father, coach Rocca chooses to focus attention on his own side. "We managed to qualify from a very tough section and that has given my players more confidence and has made them feel more sure about themselves. That kind of lift could be vital for the Spain game. The least little thing can make all the difference in these knockout matches."
The Spanish threat
One of the main reasons why the feared Spanish have been performing so well in Egypt is Daniel Parejo. Currently with Getafe, the Real Madrid youth product has enjoyed more playing time than any of his midfield colleagues and is better placed than most to assess his side's chances.
"I don't know if we're the best team. Maybe the fact that we've won all our games without conceding any goals means that we are," he says, before warning against complacency. "We need to stay humble and respect our opponents. At this level and in a competition like this anyone can come along and beat you."
"Italy are not just any team, though," continues Parejo. "I've seen two of their games here and when you watch them on TV you might think that they're not playing that well. But they've got some great players and the same hallmark as the national team. They're very hard to beat and they're always there or thereabouts. The game will last 93 minutes and we need maximum concentration."
Like Albertazzi, Parejo has clear memories of that final in Pescara. "They tried to stop us playing our possession game there but we managed to get the better of them. We've matured since then and we have different tactics we can use now. We can play possession football, we can hit on the break or we can hit it long and look for the knockdowns. If they cut us off in midfield, we'll look for another way to cause them problems."
Whatever Gli Azzurrini try to do, the Spanish No10, who scored a delightful free-kick against Venezuela, believes his side have the resources to cope with the challenges that lie ahead. "The most difficult part starts now," he concludes. "We've come here to try and win the title and the conditions are right for us to stay on track. We're hoping to go all the way."