MADRID (Reuters) - Spain and Italy are old foes but when they resume their rivalry in Saturday’s crucial World Cup qualifier all eyes will be on Marco Asensio and Andrea Belotti, two youngsters who have revitalised their teams’ attacking options.
Real Madrid winger Asensio, 21, and Torino striker Belotti, 23, were absent when Italy knocked Spain out of Euro 2016 last year but have since blossomed into two of the most exciting attacking players in Europe.
The former world champions are tied on 16 points at the top of Group G and the winner of Saturday’s showdown will be strongly placed to top the group and automatically qualify for the 2018 World Cup, leaving the runner up to fight it out in a play-off.
Central to Italy’s hopes of leaving the Santiago Bernabeu victorious is Belotti, nicknamed the rooster, who hit 26 goals for Torino last season and has scored four goals from four starts in Italy’s qualifying campaign.
He picked up where he left off last season by landing an outrageous scissor kick in Torino’s 3-0 win over Sassuolo on Sunday, prompting coach Sinisa Mihajlovic to remark that the striker was worth 100 million euros (92.87 million pounds).
Asensio, known as the bullfighter by his Madrid teammates, has demonstrated his own knack for scoring sensational goals. He did so again by netting twice from outside the area in a 2-2 draw with Valencia on Sunday and has totted up four goals already this campaign.
Asensio lit up the under-21 European Championships in June with a hat-trick in the opening game against Macedonia and helped Spain beat Italy in the semi-finals before finishing runners up to Germany.
A 10-minute cameo role in a World Cup qualifier against Liechtenstein last year and two friendly appearances are his only appearances for Spain’s first team but his rampant start to the season make him a likely starter on his home turf.
As well as his goals against Valencia, Asensio hit two scorching strikes against Barcelona in the Spanish Super Cup, cementing his reputation for delivering on the biggest stage after netting in the Champions League final win over Juventus.
Asensio has also scored in every competition debut for Madrid, and few would bet against him continuing that run in his first competitive start for Spain.
“We’re going to enjoy him for many years but he easily deserves to be a starter now,” said David Villa, Spain’s all-time top scorer who has been recalled to the squad.