Jesus Navas settled a nail-biting penalty shoot-out 7-6 for Spain as the world and European champions edged Italy on a sultry evening in Fortaleza on Thursday to set up a Confederations Cup final meeting with Brazil. (All AFP images and text)
Chastened by the memory of the Euro 2012 final, Italy coach Cesare Prandelli reverted to the formula he had successfully used in the 1-1 draw between the sides earlier in that tournament.
Italy lined up with a three-man defence and no fewer than six midfielders at Estadio Castelao, Claudio Marchisio and Antonio Candreva providing support for lone striker Alberto Gilardino.
As a result, Spain's intricate passing exchanges foundered far from the Italian goal, and Prandelli's men were bold in their exploitation of the space behind the Spanish defence.
Right wing-back Christian Maggio was particularly prominent, heading over from a corner and then drawing a fine save from Iker Casillas with a header after Andrea Pirlo picked him out with a raking 60-yard pass. Casillas was preferred over Pepe Reina and Victor Valdes for this game.
Within seconds, Fernando Torres almost punished Italy, but after neatly outfoxing Andrea Barzagli, he drilled his left-foot shot across goal and wide.
Amid cloying humidity, the intensity dropped in the second half, and Spain occasionally found themselves in the unfamiliar position of hearing their opponents' passing combinations celebrated with chants of 'Ole!'
Spain centre-back Gerard Pique, watched by celebrity girlfriend Shakira, could have settled the tie in the 85th minute, but he blazed over from Navas' low pass and the game went to extra time. (In image: Shakira after the win)
Italy almost broke through in the third minute of the extra period when Giaccherini rattled the post with a rising left-foot drive.
Del Bosque elected to swap Torres for holding midfielder Javi Martinez, but it gave Spain momentum, with Pique and Jordi Alba both going close. (In image: Spain coach with players)
Italy started the penalty proceedings with Candreva who promptly converted. (In image: Daniele de Rossi converts his penalty)
Spain followed up with conversions of their own as first five penalties, for both sides, went in. (In image: Sergio Ramos scores for Spain)
Leonardo Bonucci proved the fall guy for the Italians, blazing the 13th kick of the shoot-out over the bar before Manchester City new boy Navas calmly tucked his penalty home.
Jesus Navas ran off in celebration as all his teammates came over too.
"It was a very difficult match for us and we'll have to think about what we have to do in the next three days to recover," said Spain coach Vicente del Bosque.
Italy were left to curse their luck after initially shackling Spain in the first half, and coach Cesare Prandelli must now galvanise minds and bodies for Sunday's meeting with Uruguay in the third-place play-off.
Spain will now seek to complete their set of senior international titles, having also won Olympic gold in Barcelona in 1992, but hosts Brazil were spared a 120-minute semi-final and will have had 24 extra hours to recover.