MADRID — Spain had too much quality for Italy in Saturday’s big World Cup qualifier, rounding out comfortable winners. Here are three quick thoughts from their Group G clash…
1. Brilliant Isco inspires Spain, points Italy towards the playoffs
Real Madrid midfielder Isco produced a stunning two-goal display as Spain defeated Italy 3-0 in the Spanish capital to leave the four-time world champions facing the prospect of having to qualify for Russia 2018 through the play-offs. Having gone into this Group G qualifier with identical records — the two teams had won every game either side of their 1-1 draw in Turin last October — a win would put the victors on course to top the group and qualify automatically for the World Cup. But this heavyweight clash in the Santiago Bernabeu was ultimately a no-contest after Isco put Spain 2-0 ahead by half-time.
Isco’s first, a 13th minute free-kick beyond the flat-footed Gianluigi Buffon, gave Spain a spectacular opener before the 25-year-old doubled their lead with a low left-foot strike on 40 minutes. Spain were eliminated from Euro 2016 by the Italians but dominated throughout on Saturday: coach Julen Lopetegui was even able to give New York City FC forward David Villa a late, sentimental run-out as a substitute, his first cap since 2014 after Alvaro Morata had made it 3-0 on 76 minutes.
With Spain due to face tiny Liechtenstein on Tuesday before finishing their qualification campaign at home to Albania and away to Israel in October, Italy now need the 2010 world champions to lose one of those games to have any hope of avoiding the play-offs.
The Azzurri should have enough quality to progress but as for Spain, they have sent an ominous warning to the rest with this performance and victory against Gian Piero Ventura’s team.
2. Time to give Sergio Ramos some credit
Few players divide option quite so forcefully as Sergio Ramos. The Real Madrid defender is up there with the likes of John Terry, Luis Suarez and Diego Costa when it comes to players that fans love to hate, but the Spain captain is overdue some credit. Ramos won his 144th senior cap for Spain against Italy and while it’s easy to focus simply on La Roja‘s attacking brilliance in the shape of Isco, Marco Asensio and David Silva, the contribution of their unpopular centre-half should not go unnoticed.
Alongside Gerard Pique — who was once again jeered and whistled by a large section of Madrid crowd — Ramos took on the difficult challenge of marking Italy forward Andrea Belotti but also was prepared to bring the ball out of the back four when in possession. He even made a lung-bursting run forward in the 76th minute to tee up Morata for Spain’s third, playing a one-two with the Chelsea forward in the Italy penalty area.
Ramos is often dismissed as nothing more than a destroyer, with his 23 red cards for Real helping to earn that reputation, but he is a true leader, a classic captain and has been as crucial to Spain’s successes as any of his more celebrated teammates. At 31, he still has maybe three more years at the top level with Spain and Real, so he might eventually earn the respect that he deserves.
3. Belotti will be Europe’s hottest property next year
It’s no secret that Manchester United and Chelsea both scouted Andrea Belotti for months last season, with the Torino forward regarded as a back-up option in the event of Romelu Lukaku or Morata rejecting their eventual moves to Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge. Belotti’s lack of European experience (and his €100 million buy-out clause) may have counted against him in the final reckoning but the 23-year-old showed against Spain that he is becoming a force to be reckoned with.
He forced a crucial save from David de Gea with a bullet header in the first half, sent one just over after the interval and also gave Sergio Ramos a tough, physical evening in the Bernabeu. It was a thankless task at times for Belotti as Spain kept the ball and starved him of chances, but his work-rate was impressive — it earned him a rest when replaced by Eder on 70 minutes — and he appears to tick every box required of a world-class centre-forward.
His stunning volley for Torino against Sassuolo last week highlighted his ability to produce the spectacular too, so he will only climb higher up the wanted lists of Europe’s biggest clubs if he continues in his current vein of form and goes on to shine at the World Cup.
At €100m, Torino may come to regret setting that figure so low.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_