Spain striker had three chances when he came on against Italy but his hesitancy was telling and he ended up glum-faced
The distance from Vienna to Gdansk must feel, for Fernando Torres, like an eternity. Four years ago, with a reputation as one of the most feared hitmen in world football, he was the man who rewrote the Spanish footballing history books when he had the blazing confidence to sear around the outside of his marker and hook what turned out to be a trophy-winning goal into the far corner of the net. Torres ran off in thumb‑sucking celebration, sank to his knees, and effectively uncorked the champagne for an exceptional vintage in international football.
Torres still holds enough sway in the Spanish team to ensure that, even if he did not start against Italy, he was the first‑choice centre‑forward to come on when Vicente del Bosque changed tack with a little over 15 minutes to go. But the current version only bears a passing resemblance to the player that at his pomp was part bulldozer, part Rolls-Royce. Anyone with even a passing interest in English football knows by now there is something, somewhere burned out in his engine. But still, to see him bearing down on a goalkeeper resplendent in Spanish red, there was a moment's pause to wonder if maybe he could rediscover his mojo.
That moment's pause, though, seems to be Torres's downfall these days. That slight hesitancy. That need for an extra touch. That attempt to jink past someone rather than just blow them away. Torres had a hat-trick of opportunities as the game opened up in the final quarter, but on each occasion he ended up glum-faced.
It reveals a lot about the balance – or lack of it compared with the 2008-2010 double winners – of Spain that they can begin a tournament without an orthodox striker in their starting XI. It is all very well Barcelona playing a system speared by a false nine when the key man is Lionel Messi, whose recent strikes for Argentina took his season's tally to a mindboggling 82 goals. Spain set out with a similar strategy, and to an extent it was justified as their equaliser came from a darting run and deft finish from Cesc Fábregas, who was detailed to play in the Messi position.
But overall, it was not a system that functioned brilliantly enough to suggest the picture won't change over the coming matches. There were some marvellous flashes from Andrés Iniesta, but not many periods where Italy were rocking on their heels.
It was not only Spain who borrowed from the example set by a prominent club side. Cesare Prandelli bowed to the pressure to follow Juventus's lead in choosing a 3-5-2 formation, with the combative midfielder Daniele De Rossi filling in further back.
It provided the curious contrast of Italy playing with two strikers, while Spain had none. Prandelli's preferred pairing of Antonio Cassano and Mario Balotelli didn't quite come off. The junior partner cut a frustrated figure after a troublesome game was cut short. Having already been booked, when he scented out a chance to carve Spain open he dawdled, as if mid-run he was suddenly pre-occupied by something else entirely. In an instant he was substituted.
By the hour, Italy were on their third striker, Spain still stuck on zero. Antonio Di Natale made a dream impact. Shortly after coming on, he showcased his predatory instinct and sweet technique to give his country the lead. The Udinese forward opened up his body to deceive Iker Cassilas and bend his shot beautifully into the net. Credit, too, to Italy's master craftsman Andrea Pirlo, whose weighted assist was supplied with the trademark finesse.
Italy were entitled to feel pleased with their evening's work. Prandelli had suggested they would not flounder on the back of external pressures, and they didn't seem to have a problem focusing on the job in hand. "Pessimism follows us, but it doesn't bother us. On the contrary, it stimulates us," he said.
Although there is clearly room for improvement for Spain, they remain better off than they were two years ago, when they lost their opening World Cup match to Switzerland. It didn't seem to work out too badly in the end.