Euro 2012 Final Preview
Euro 2012 Final
Olympic Stadium, Kiev
Sunday 1st July 2012
Those of us who predicted that Italy would struggle to even emerge from the group phase of this competition have been forced to down a sizeable slice of humble pie as a largely unsung Azzurri side have swept all before them en route to a Final date with Spain.
And on the evidence of their stunning Semi-Final victory over Germany in Warsaw, Cesare Prandelli’s men are certainly in with a shout of dethroning the reigning champions with whom they fought out an entertaining 1-1 draw in their opening game of the tournament.
Unlike the Italians,Spain headed into Euro 2012 with a huge level of expectation surrounding them and each of their opponents adapting their style of play to specifically counter their strengths. Little wonder then that La Roja have subsequently failed to scale the heights they reached at Euro 2008, or to a lesser extent, World Cup 2010.
Vicente del Bosque’s side will still be installed as warm favourites to win a record-breaking third major international competition on the bounce, but unless they can take their performance levels up another couple of notches, they could come a cropper against an Italy side who appear to be on the crest of a wave.
Both sides found themselves pitted against each other in Group C, along with Croatia and Ireland and after sharing the spoils in that opening game, made it through to the last eight with a degree of comfort.
Spain trounced a hapless Irish side before leaving it late to down the plucky Croatians 1-0, while Italy fought out a compelling 1-1 draw with Croatia and then made short work of Ireland in their final group game.
In the Quarter-Finals, meanwhile, Spain found themselves facing a France side whose lack of ambition was embarrassing to behold and they barely needed to get out of first gear to secure a 2-0 victory in Donetsk.
And Italy would have completed a similarly regulation victory over an equally cautious England outfit had they managed to convert just one of the 35 goalscoring opportunities they created. Instead, they found themselves forced to go to extra-time and eventually a penalty shoot-out in order to secure the result their total dominance deserved.
Then, in the Semi-Finals, we saw Portugal expose some of Spain’s shortcomings without ever looking capable of fully exploiting them. del Bosque’s side rarely looked like scoring, even with a genuine striker in the starting line-up in the form of shock inclusion Alvaro Negredo and they ultimately had to rely on a successful penalty shoot-out in order to progress.
There were no such travails for Italy in their Semi-Final, however, as they produced arguably the best overall team performance of the entire tournament to down red-hot favourites Germanycourtesy of two goals from Mario Balotelli.
Any discussion of Spain’s key strengths inevitably returns to their dominance of possession and no three players are more key to that than Andres Iniesta, Xavi Hernandez and Xabi Alonso. Having seen Andrea Pirlo, Daniele De Rossi and Riccardo Montolivo take the German midfield to the cleaners earlier this week, the Spanish trio know that the Italians will be doing everything they can to hurry them and disrupt their short-passing rhythm.
Pirlo, of course, is the master puppeteer in the Italian midfield, pulling the strings and setting the tempo and if the Spaniards can either mark him out of the game, or cut off his supply route, the Azzurri will struggle to stay in the game.
Defensively, meanwhile, both sides have looked reasonably impressive so far, althoughItalyskipper Gianluigi Buffon will be keen to improve upon his rather shaky Semi-Final display against Germany. There was no faulting the bravery and determination of the Italian back four in that famous victory as they repelled arguably the best attacking team in the tournament with relative ease and with Spain looking anything but incisive up front in recent games, Federico Balzaretti, Giorgio Chiellini and co will back themselves to do the same on Sunday.
As for Spain, Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique have looked fairly solid at centre-back thus far, while Jordi Alba’s rampaging forays forward from left-back have proved extremely effective in disrupting the massed defences employed by most sides against the reigning champions.
It’s not easy to assess how Spain will fare up front given that del Bosque may again opt not to field an out-and-out striker, but having seen how much more threatening his charges look when he introduced Fernando Torres off the bench during their group stage meeting, the veteran coach could be tempted to give the Chelsea man the nod to start.
And for Italy, having had his starting place called into doubt following his profligate display against England in the Quarter-Final, Mario Balotelli answered in the best possible way with his stunning brace in the win over Germany.
The volatile Manchester City man is again likely to be partnered by Antonio Cassano, who also improved significantly upon his low-key performance against England and the pair’s combination of power and movement should ask serious questions of Spain’s rearguard.
Although their surprise switch to 3-5-2 worked extremely well during their 1-1 draw with Spain a fortnight ago, it seems unlikely that Prandelli will revert to that formation again on Sunday.
The Italian back four surely did enough against Germanyto prove that they are equipped to do the job in the Final and moving Daniele De Rossi back to play the sweeper role in the 3-5-2 would also deny the Azzurri a vital element of drive and bite in the pivotal central midfield area.
Pressing Spain high up the pitch, however, is certainly a tactic that Prandelli will instruct his charges to employ again and as Italy are really the only side who have genuinely gone at the Spanish for a prolonged period of time during this tournament, we will hopefully see them be similarly positive during the Final.
del Bosque, meanwhile, prefers to let his opponents adapt to his team’s style rather than the other way round, so don’t expect Spain to do anything too radical in Kiev on Sunday.
Jesus Navas could come into the selection reckoning given his ability to help prevent his side becoming too narrow in attack, but otherwise the only change looks likely to come up front where Cesc Fabregas and Torres will battle it out for a starting berth.
Spain have not lost faith in their ability to maintain control by monopolising possession and will back themselves and their system to prevail even if they aren’t creating as many chances as they would like.
This Final may not be the one many of us expected, but it could just prove to be one to remember. There are fascinating personal match-ups in prospect all across the park, the tactical battle between the two coaches should be a beauty and then there are wildcards such as Balotelli to add an extra dash of intrigue into the mix.
Euro 2012 has been a hugely enjoyable tournament that deserves to end on a high and if Spain and Italy reproduce a similar contest to the one they fought out in Group C, that will definitely prove to be the case.
Will this prove a game too far for a Spain side that has not been firing on all cylinders?
Or have Italyalready peaked with their magnificent Semi-Final win over Germany?
It’s not an easy one to call, but with their extra quality in midfield, Spain may just squeeze home in extra-time.
Prediction: Italy 1-2 Spain (A.E.T.)
First goalscorer: Riccardo Montolivo