Nations League title within Chiellini's reach but teen challenger Gavi stands in the way

Veteran Italy captain will be having one eye on title when European champions take on Spain in semi-final

There’s barely an opposing number nine in professional football that Giorgio Chiellini, veteran captain of Italy and Juventus, does not know intimately. Two decades spent perfecting the skills of tight marking and close combat means almost nobody can take this craggy, totemic defender by surprise.

But Chiellini did, like most, raise an eyebrow when he saw who would be wearing the number nine shirt for Spain, Italy’s opposition in Milan on Wednesday in the first semi-final of the Uefa Nations League. The player is Barcelona’s Gavi, who made his senior competitive debut only 38 days ago. Safe to report that he and Chiellini are at the opposite poles of their professional careers. Gavi turned 17 in early August, nine days before Chiellini turned 37.

The month before those birthdays, Chiellini lifted the European championship trophy at Wembley, the summit moment of a 130-odd match Italy career that has known some heartbreak, like the failure to qualify for the last World Cup, and enough high-stakes contests with Spain to vividly tell the story of the fluctuating hierarchy of international football this century.

Chiellini made his Italy debut for the Azzurri way back when they were en route to becoming world champions. He was well established in the Italy side that, two summers after their World Cup success, lost on penalties to Spain at Euro 2008.

Spain went on to win that tournament and retain the title with an emphatic victory in the 2012 final against Chiellini’s Italy. The see-saw began to lean the other way when the blues beat the reds at Euro 2016, and leaned again, narrowly, when Roberto Mancini’s Italy defeated the Spaniards in the Euro 2020 semi-final, which went all the way to penalties, in London.

“The memory of our game at the Euros against Spain is fixed our minds and hearts,” said Chiellini. “We have huge respect for Spain and there are aspects of that game in which we will have to do better at this time.”

The Spain who line up on Wednesday will be significantly altered from that night, injuries having deprived head coach Luis Enrique of five of the players who took part in that epic contest, including Dani Olmo, whose excellent night’s work ended with him missing a penalty in the shootout, Jordi Alba, Pedri, Marcos Llorente and Alvaro Morata. The latter, Chiellini’s Juventus team-mate, would normally have worn Spain’s number nine jersey.

But Spain will be without a recognised centre-forward at all, Villarreal’s Gerard Moreno also being out with injury. And although that in itself is not such a rarity in a team who often prefer no target man in their pass-and-move system, to seeing Gavi included in the squad and wearing number nine is quirky to say the least.

“Maybe it is very early to call up Gavi,” said Enrique, “but I believe he will become a very important player for his country.”

The manager’s instinct is in this case a better guide than the numbers. Gavi has played only 275 minutes of top division league football in his life, albeit that for many of those he has been a true ray of light in Barcelona’s dismal season so far. Nor should anybody think his number nine jersey is anything but arbitrary: Gavi is a busy midfield player.

So is Ander Herrera, whose excellent form for Paris Saint-Germain did not earn a call-up even for injury-hit Spain. So is Fabian Ruiz, starring for pacesetting Napoli in Serie A but not included in Luis Enrique’s group. Just as at the Euros, there are no Real Madrid players involved.

If Spain look like a slightly patchwork squad, they will not think that is ominous. The squad Enrique named for  Euro 2020 was also idiosyncratic. They started slowly, but ended up impressing, with another Barcelona teenager, Pedri, to the foreground by the time they took Italy to the limit for a place in the final.

Mancini has to adapt to key absences too, with neither Ciro Immobile or Andrea Belotti fit to share the centre-forward’s role, as they did at Italy’s triumphant Euros. Juventus’s Moise Kean could lead the line against Spain.

A crowd of 37,000 will be at San Siro, the maximum allowed under Covid-19 restrictions, and Chiellini welcomes the opportunity for his European champions to claim a another trophy, if they can overcome Spain and either France or Belgium in Sunday’s final, in front of home supporters.

He also hopes Italian football, as host of the Nations League, will present itself better to the world than it did at the weekend, when Napoli’s Serie A game at Fiorentina was marred by racist abuse of Napoli players. “As an Italian I was embarrassed,” said the Azzurri captain. “It is unacceptable.”

Updated: October 5th 2021, 3:53 PM