Italy's survival instincts served them well as they scrambled into the quarter-finals of Euro 2008 at the expense of a dreadful France team that must now be dismantled.

They have not looked like world champions as they navigated the time-honoured "group of death" to secure a last eight meeting with Spain.

Spain have looked as impressive as anyone in the tournament, but would you bet with confidence against Italy beating a team whose collective nerve has failed under pressure on the big occasion before?

Take the World Cup in 2006 - Italy started slowly and grew, whereas Spain started fast and failed when it mattered.

I well recall blogging from England's base in Baden-Baden two years ago and indulging in some mockery of Italian fans who rode around the town waving flags simply to celebrate qualification from the group stage.

You'd think they had already won it, I wrote, tempting fate spectacularly. Just a couple of weeks later they had, and there was not enough humble pie to go around. My new Italian friends were not slow to let me know about it - hence my reluctance to write them off ever again.


Italy may be stripped of their influential midfielders Gennaro Gattuso and Andrea Pirlo through suspension, but if Spain have finally found the bottle to make an impact on a major tournament, they must show it against Roberto Donadoni's side.

They must hope Italy's strikers continue to misfire, with Luca Toni's finishing a glaring weakness - although his track record ominously suggests that won't last forever.

Spain, fuelled by the magnificent front pairing of Fernando Torres and David Villa, have all the weapons to take advantage of an Italian defence that is vulnerable without the talismanic Fabio Cannavaro.

The question is can they summon up the self-belief? No-one has ever doubted Spain's ability, just their stomach for the fight when the chips were down.

True, they look the real deal this time - but we have all thought that before until our suspicions about their ability to get results at the business end of a competition were confirmed.

I still have my doubts about Spain. They did not look quite as impressive when pressed by an average Sweden side and were lucky to be bailed out by Villa's last-minute winner.

Euro 2008's Group C was as fascinating as everyone suspected it would be from the moment the draw was made, and credit to the Dutch for remaining professional to the end and beating Romania.

Who would have blamed coach Marco van Basten if he had told his second-string side not to go through all the gears against Romania - safe in the knowledge defeat would have taken out a major power such as either Italy or France?

Call me unethical, but if I had been in Van Basten's shoes I would have been more than happy to lose to close off the possibility of meeting Italy at a later stage.

It would have been strategically wise and he may yet live to regret not doing it, but Van Basten and his players respected the tournament and confirmed their status as potential winners.

As for France, it is fair to say we witnessed the end of an era in Euro 2008 as a selection of players delivered compelling evidence that they should not be seen on the international stage again.

Raymond Domenech confirmed his, shall we say, eccentricity, by proposing to his long-time girlfriend live on television immediately after the final whistle. Sorry to sound so unromantic, but it was a farcical finish to a farcical night for France.

And on the evidence of the performance of both Domenech and his team in Euro 2008, he will soon have plenty of time on his hands to sort out the nuptials.

Raymond may have consoled himself by popping the question, but it will have provided little cheer to a French football nation who have watched their team's wretched efforts in the last 10 days.

It is sad to see great players so publicly past their best, and there were plenty on display in the shape of Thierry Henry and Lilian Thuram, with Patrick Vieira merely a spectator.

Thuram did not even pitch up against Italy and at least had the decency to retire fron international duty after the game. Claude Makelele followed suit and Henry and Vieira should also be thinking seriously about their own futures with France.

So Euro 2008 approaches the knock-out phase after impressive group stages which lacked nothing for the absence of England, however much they may think the rest of Europe misses them.

And it will be fascinating to see how free-flowing Spain cope with the hard-nosed Italians with a place in the last four at stake.

If I wanted a team to play for my life, I would still pick Italy ahead of Spain, even on the evidence of what I've seen so far.

Will Italy prove to be the great survivors once more? Will Spain finally turn promise into big results?

The answer may provide a crucial clue to who might be fighting out the final in Vienna on 29 June. Your thoughts are welcome.

Phil McNulty is BBC Sport Interactive's chief football writer. Please check our FAQs if you have any questions.


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