For Italy, there was no victory but there was vindication. There may also have been something of a reawakening. An impressive performance in their opening game against Spain takes on great significance because it was so unexpected – even if Italy's coach, Cesare Prandelli, would disagree. Confidence comes not just from drawing with the world champions but competing with them too. Asked if he was pleased with the point, the midfielder Claudio Marchisio said: "Most of all it was important to play well." Italy certainly did that.

The last time Spain and Italy had met in a competitive game was at the European Championship four years ago. Spain's quarter-final victory on penalties was a watershed moment, not just the burying of the past but the construction of a future. Italy, meanwhile, seemed to be headed in the other direction. At the 2010 World Cup, they failed to get out of their group, finishing behind New Zealand.

Prandelli took over and led his side through qualification unbeaten, while talking of Italy as a side who wanted to entertain as well as win. But their display against Spain still surprised, particularly against a backdrop of uncertainty and injury. At the final whistle, the Italian players celebrated with their fans. It had been a good night. "This result gives us confidence because we were facing a very strong side, if not the strongest of all. I think we had the right approach with no kind of fear," Daniele De Rossi said.

Prandelli had worked hard on a three-man central defence, with De Rossi retreating from midfield. Afterwards, the Roma player said he was grateful for the support of those around him after an impressive display in a role that is not habitual. Prandelli had only one complaint: "I would have liked De Rossi to step out a bit more," he said. That comment said much.

"It was a very intense game," Prandelli said. "We really tried hard to press the Spanish players from the moment they started their moves. We tried to avoid them getting one-on-one situations, while when we had the ball we looked to build from the back."

The Spanish are often suspicious of the Italians, often portrayed as ultra-defensive, and in the buildup they foresaw a new variety of catenaccio. Five at the back, with the bus well and truly parked. The game did not play out that way. So, had Italy shown that a five-man defence need not be defensive? "Yes," said Prandelli, quite correctly, and for one reason above all: "It was three, not five." The two wing backs, Emanuele Giaccherini and Christian Maggio, were more "wing" than "backs", opening up the pitch and pressing high, finding space behind Spain's full backs – in particular Alvaro Arbeloa.

"They played very well," Spain's manager Vicente del Bosque said. "They knew what they were doing, they employed quick transitions and switched the play effectively with sharp, rapidly played longer passes."

So much for defensive Italy. The Italians were comfortable in possession and had as many shots on target as Spain did. Flanked on either side, Andrea Pirlo was marvellous, two passes in particular standing out – one sweep to the left, played almost blind, and the run and assist for Antonio Di Natale's opening goal.

Ahead of him, Antonio Cassano was involved in Italy's best moments, for as long as he could last, which turned out to be around an hour. At the half-time whistle, it was Iker Casillas who had made the most saves, his sharp dive to the near post to stop Thiago Motta's header the best of them. Casillas was the only player to be handed full marks by the Spanish media.

"I know the players they have, especially in the middle of the pitch – high-quality players who combine very well, who know where and when to play passes," Andrés Iniesta said. "People are mistaken if they say that Italy is a team that only defends: we have seen that they have great players and they know how to play lovely football."