Several Spanish players showed up on the field looking worn down, Casillas and Xavi come to mind. The latter had been having a fairly forgettable tournament up to this point and it was even suggested Andres Iniesta be put in his role. Both he and Spain looked ripe for the picking. And then it started. OK, for 10 minutes or so, Italy have their moments. And then Spain get mad. Iniesta plays Jack the Ripper with Giorgio Chiellini, leaving him exposed in a footrace against Cesc Fabregas, who subsenquently crosses it perfectly for David Silva’s head. 1-0 Spain. Uh-oh… If they keep this up… And they did. Late first half, Spanish left back Jordi Alba makes perhaps the sprint of the tournament, starting in his team’s half and latching on to a Xavi through ball so amazing I can’t help but yell out, “what a f*ckin’ ball!” Alba slots it past Gigi Buffon in a way that would make any striker proud and it’s 2-0 before halftime.
The other two goals come when the Italians are stuck playing with 10 men after Thiago Motta’s injury, but they don’t matter nearly as much. It’s all about that first half. Yes, the Spaniards surrender more possession than usual. And yes, this is tiki-taka, but there’s something different. They still work the passing triangles every Englishman is seamingly tired of, but they move the ball with the kind of purpose we had come to miss. This is tiki-taka, the Euro 2008 version. Every time they get close to the Italian penalty area, we hold our breath. Every Spanish attack looks like a goal waiting to happen. When analysts say Spain play the game the way it should be played, that’s what they mean. It’s a flat-out clinic out there.
So Spain has retained the European championship. I cannot say I’m surprised. Despite not always being as entertaining as they were four years ago, not to mention the fact that their tiki-taka brand of possession football did not work as flawlessly as it had in the past, la Furia Roja is now the first team to capture three consecutive major tournaments. Germany probably had the most talent, but that only gets you so far, as their lousy performance in the semi-finals allowed a surprising Italian team to tear up the script and slip into the final. There are those who will say the unflattering 4-0 scoreline provides vindication for the Germans’ claim that they “belonged in the final more than the Italians.” I must disagree. Italy were not greatly inferior to Spain and were worthy finalists, despite the fact that few, save for the most optimistic nationals, didn’t expect them to get there. The first game of the round robin phase between these two teams, which Spain should have won, but didn’t thanks to Fernando Torres squandering two golden scoring opportunities, was much more indicative of how close both teams are. And despite the final’s lopsided scoreline, Azzurri fans should find many reasons for optimism after the pain of defeat subsides somewhat.
In my opinion, what looked a humiliating loss can be relativized to a degree, and what happened to Italy in the finals took place for three reasons. First off, I must say I feel for Italian manager Cesare Prandelli. After an entire tournament of brilliant coaching, he got his tactics all wrong for the very first time when it mattered most. What possessed him to start central defender Giorgio Chiellini out of position at left back? Chiellini, whose lack of foot speed was so flagrantly exposed by the not-overly-pacey Cesc Fabregas on Spain’s first goal, would leave soon after the goal with an injury. Prandelli might have figured he didn’t have a choice, but that hypothesis was itself disproven as Chiellini’s replacement, Federico Balzaretti, looked both more comfortable in defence and threatening down the wing than Chiellini possibly could have. Chiellini is a traditional central defender in that he is a towering type who’s very adept at aerial defending as well as a good header of the ball, but he doesn’t dazzle you with mobility and the Spanish attack could likely have kept picking on him had he stayed in the game. Moreover, given how much Italy likes to attack out wide with its fullbacks, the decision to play the slow-footed Chiellini there is even more puzzling.
Speaking of wide play, you also have to wonder, after Italian fullbacks had the Spanish defence stretched out like a spandex on Miami Beach in the first game when Prandelli went with a 5-3-2, why the coach would choose a lineup with such limited wide options. This is especially weird considering the fact that Spain tends to crowd the middle of the field with its 4-3-3 lineup and forces opponents to attack out wide.
Prandelli started the game with a T-shaped midfield that had a line made of three central midfielders (De Rossi, Marchisio and Montolivo) with Andrea Pirlo right behind them. The manager painted his attack into a corner using this tactic. Montolivo’s selection over Thiago Motta was a little surprising considering the former had been fairly anonymous throughout the tournament whereas Motta is more of a defensive-minded player with a high work rate who can provide the occasional spark in attack, much like the excellent De Rossi. But today, the Spaniards crowded the midfield, leaving Montolivo and De Rossi, two players who simply do not widen out, stuck in a perpetual traffic jam, and forced Andrea Pirlo to attempt too many long balls for Mario Balotelli. This problem was exacerbated by the fact that the Spanish were apparently so scared of Balotelli’s speed that they had Sergio Ramos playing about three yards off him the entire time, thus nullifying any potential impact from the Italian’s athleticism. Yes, the Spanish did a good job limiting Italian scoring opportunities, but the Azzurri setup did most of the job for them.
It must also be said that the Italians had the worst luck with injuries. First, Chiellini had to come off in the first half, forcing Prandelli to replace him. In the second half, the coach made the right choice by taking out a mostly inoffensive Antonio Cassano and replacing him with the instinctive Antonio Di Natale, who got himself two scoring chances within minutes of entering the game. That left Prandelli with one sub, a sub he used to swap Riccardo Montolivo for Thiago Motta. But two minutes after entering the game, Motta was forced to leave with a hamstring injury. With no substitutions left, Italy was forced to try and eliminate a 2-0 deficit with 10 men. Not against Spain, you won’t. This was simply not Prandelli’s day.
Finally, you simply have to hand it to the Spanish team. They say big players show up in big games. Well, that’s exactly what they did today. After facing complaints that they were boring and even sometimes negative, the Spaniards went Lebron-James-in-Game-6-against-the-Celtics on the Italians, and on all of us. It’s like they just got tired of the criticism and said, “Look, we’ve been the best in the world for four years now. We know you want a new story, but you’re not getting one. We’re still the best. So stop criticizing us because you’re subconsciously or consciously jealous that the English, or the French, or the Italians, or anyone, couldn’t possibly play the way we do. Stop talking about the things we supposedly can’t do. Stop judging us by standards no team in the history of the game has ever been judged by. Enough is enough.”
90 minutes later, all those people who kept endlessly repeating that Spain weren’t the same, or that they were negative, or that playing Cesc Fabregas as a false nine was a bad idea (guilty!), or who were propping up Italy after jumping on the Mario Balotelli bandwagon faster than anti-Italians got around to saying he’s really Ghanaian, all those people suddenly had nothing left to do but bow down to the kings.
Gli Azzurri have a bright future
That the Italians “weren’t there yet” is undeniable. Still, I told my father before the match that “no matter what happens, this tournament is mission accomplished for the Italians,” and I meant it. It’s not just that nobody expected them to get to the finals, which is certainly true. But there was more to it than that. Most people associate Italian football with hilarious manerisms, lots of diving, and boring variants of Catenaccio, yet there was a surprising positivity about this Italian team. In the first game against Spain, they created most of the best scoring chances. They figured you could trouble the German defence, so they unleashed Mario Balotelli on them, while showing the typically Italian defensive organization. They were most often fundamentally sound. But perhaps most importantly, save for a few dependable veterans, they were a fairly young team.
Remember how Italy brought Marcello Lippi out of retirement for World Cup 2010 and he bombed it by basically picking the 2006 gang, who had since become the over-the-hill gang? This year, you’d have sworn that never happened. The speed at which Gli Azzurri made the transition from the washed-up 2006 squad to this fiery bunch, not to mention a more positive brand of football, is staggering and represents in itself a tremendous accomplishment for coach Prandelli and this group of players. Somewhere, while he’s finishing his resignation papers, Laurent Blanc is wishing he could have pulled off a similar turnaround with the French team.
Andrea Pirlo, my personal pick for the player of the tournament, is not getting any younger, but lots of young talent also spread its wings in this tournament for the Italians. We already knew about Gigi Buffon’s promising replacement in goal, Paris St-Germain’s Salvatore Sirigu. But for the first time, fullbacks Ignazio Abate and Christian Maggio looked worthy of the Azzurro shirt. Maggio made some really decent-looking runs down the wing when he played, and Abate was solid defensively. Claudio Marchisio carried the outstanding form he displayed at title-winning Juventus this year into the Euros and looked,as he did for Juve, like he has two sets of lungs running around chasing the ball.Gli Azzurri can still rely on the terrific Daniele De Rossi for at least one more tournament, and that’s a good thing considering I thought him to be, before this year’s Euro, Italy’s only world class player under the age of 30.
The Italians should also take comfort in the fact that they were missing their excellent American-born striker Guiseppe Rossi, who plays for Spanish side Villareal, due to injury. When he returns, he should be a force to be reckoned with. And of course, Italy potentially have an absolute stud in striker Mario Balotelli, who has the merit of never being boring for the simple reason that you never know what incredibly brilliant or stupid thing he’s going to do next. He also has the kind of ability that can get him mentioned in the same sentence as the likes of Messi and Ronaldo. But channelling Balotelli’s often self-destructive energy will be key for both Manchester City and Italy. The Italians do not have another player with Balotelli’s upside anywhere, and it’s imperative for them that he keep displaying the excellent conduct he showed throughout Euro 2012 in the future. If he can do that and if the rest of Italy’s young talent can keep getting better, Gli Azzurri will not be underdogs in Brazil 2014.