- Associated Press - Sunday, June 26, 2016

SAINT-MARTIN-DE-RE, France (AP) - Spain is pledging to stick to its acclaimed passing game to try to break through Italy’s equally famous defense in the round of 16 of the European Championship on Monday.

Facing one of the best defenses at Euro 2016, Spain is vowing to stay patient and keep the ball to create scoring chances against its old rival in Monday’s match at the Stade de France.

“It’s difficult to score and it’s difficult to create opportunities against them,” Spain midfielder Thiago Alcantara said. “It’s a team that is well set up. They score few goals but also concede few goals. It will be a tough game. It’s always complicated to play against Italy.”

The two-time defending champion is hoping not to fall into the trap of changing its style and forcing long balls into the Italian defense if it becomes difficult to get near Gianluigi Buffon’s goal.

“It’s important that Spain continues to be Spain,” coach Vicente Del Bosque said. “Italy has a solid team in every aspect. We’ve had problems against teams with similar systems but hopefully tomorrow we will be able to do things well.”

With Barcelona midfielder Andres Iniesta in command, Spain finished the group stage as the most accurate passing team at Euro 2016, completing 93 percent of its passes. It also had the most passing attempts among all 24 teams that started the tournament, with 2,023. That was nearly double what Italy had in its first three games.

Spain also finished with one of the highest ball-possession rates in the first phase with 61 percent, against 48 percent for Italy.

“We’ve been successful with this type of game. We’ve become used to it,” Alcantara said. “We may vary our style at times, sometimes using a striker up front, but we have always maintained our passing game.”

Italy’s defense proved effective in the group stage against very offensive teams, keeping a clean sheet against both Belgium and Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s Sweden. It conceded in a 1-0 loss to Ireland in its final group game after resting some regular starters. Spain scored five goals in its first three games, conceding two.

It will be the third straight European Championship in which Spain and Italy play each other. Spain eliminated the Italians in a penalty shootout in the quarterfinals of the 2008 tournament and triumphed in the final in Ukraine in 2012.

“We played one of the best games I can remember in that final,” defender Jordi Alba said. “But it’s not going to be like that this time. They have three central defenders and two wingers who can create problems for us. It will be very difficult.”

Del Bosque used the same starting lineup in the first three matches and is not expected to make any changes to the squad against Italy despite the disappointing 2-1 loss to Croatia in its final group game, a result that dropped the team to second place and set up the early encounter with the Italians.


Tales Azzoni on Twitter: https://twitter.com/tazzoni. His work can be found at https://bigstory.ap.org/content/tales-azzoni

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