London: Luis Enrique’s belligerent self-belief has led Spain to the semi-finals of Euro 2020, but the former Barcelona boss has another personal score to settle in tomorrow’s last four against Italy.
His playing career at major tournaments is best remembered for the vicious elbow from Mauro Tassotti that left blood flowing from his burst nose over his white Spain shirt at the 1994 World Cup.
Tassotti escaped without punishment at the time - Spain denied a stoppage time penalty and the chance to take the game to extra-time as the Azzurri ran out 2-1 winners.
The Italy defender was subsequently banned for eight games by FIFA, but the damage was already done for Spain as they exited at the quarter-finals.
That was a familiar story for Spanish football at the time as generations of talented players came and went without leaving a trace at major competitions.
All that changed in 2008 as a last eight win over Italy on penalties opened the door for Luis Aragones’s side to win the European Championship.
Vicente del Bosque then took over to win the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012.
But by the time Luis Enrique got the call, Spain had fallen rapidly from grace.
In the previous three major tournaments, they failed to even reach the quarter-finals as the generation of a glorious era grew old together.
Luis Enrique’s contentious call to leave out former captain Sergio Ramos for Euro 2020 broke the last remaining link to the 2008 team.
Without Ramos, or any other Real Madrid player for the first time in Spain’s history at a major tournament, the Madrid press cried foul, claiming La Furia Roja would lack leadership.
“I am one of the leaders, like all coaches,” said Luis Enrique in response. “If that is not the case, it is a bad signal.”
It has not been a totally smooth ride. A case of coronavirus for Sergio Busquets in the days before the tournament began meant the coach’s decision not to take his full complement of 26 players was further questioned.
Spain have also only won one of their five games in 90 minutes.
Yet, a number of Luis Enrique’s biggest calls have come through for him when it mattered most.
Alvaro Morata had to listen to his own fans chant “how bad are you” in a pre-tournament friendly against Portugal.
After a host of missed chances, including a penalty, in the group stages, the Juventus striker produced a stunning finish in extra-time to turn the last 16 tie against Croatia back in his side’s favour.
Unai Simon’s comical own goal in that game to open the scoring when he failed to control a simple back pass from Pedri reopened the debate over who should be Spain’s number one.
But the Athletic Bilbao goalkeeper made two penalty saves in the shootout win over Switzerland in the quarter-finals.
Nationalised just weeks before Euro 2020 kicked off, centre-back Aymeric Laporte has made vital contributions in both boxes as has Cesar Azpilicueta on his international recall after three years.
Further forward, Paris Saint-Germain winger Pablo Sarabia has more than justified his surprise place in the squad with goals against Slovakia and Croatia, while Ferran Torres, Dani Olmo and Mikel Oyarzabal have all made telling contributions when introduced as substitutes.
“I always said we were one of the eight candidates to win the European Championship and now we are among the four best,” said Enrique.
“It would be ridiculous to be in the semi-finals and not think about taking one step more. This is the objective.”
A familiar foe stands in his way at Wembley, but win or lose, Luis Enrique will do it his own way.
Meanwhile, Italy defender Leonardo Spinazzola will be out of action “for a few months” after suffering a serious injury in their Euro 2020 quarter-final win over Belgium on Friday, his club AS Roma’s new manager Jose Mourinho has said.
Italian media reports said full back Spinazzola, who has been fundamental to Italy’s impressive charge to the last four, sustained a suspected ruptured Achilles tendon injury in their 2-1 win in Munich and would miss the remainder of the Euros.
But the midfield presence Jorginho which has been the cornerstone of Italy’s revival from World Cup flops to Euro 2020 contenders will be key tomorrow. One of the Azzurri’s Brazilian contingent along with domestic teammate Emerson Palmieri and Atalanta defender Rafael Toloi, Jorginho, born in the southern town of Imbituba, has brought the technical flair of the country of his birth to his adopted Italy.
“With Jorginho, everything seems simple. He is essential to this team, untouchable,” said midfield partner Marco Verratti.