After a little over three weeks of football, UEFA Euro 2012 is now at its conclusion. Tomorrow’s final in Kiev between Spain and Italy is poised to be a fitting showpiece, a meeting of two true giants of European football. Vicente del Bosque’s side reached this point by winning Group C and cruising past France, then defeating Portugal on penalties in the semi-final. Italy have also been through penalties, beating England in the quarters, and were in wonderful form in defeating Germany on Thursday.
And so we reach the finale of a very enjoyable competition, a month of action made memorable by Daniele de Rossi playing as a sweeper, Jakub Blaszczykowski’s piledriver, Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s brilliant volley, Andy Carroll’s towering header and stunning penalties by Andrea Pirlo and huge-balls-with-man-attached Sergio Ramos. One match remains, and if the Azzurri’s semi-final is anything to go by then it could be the best match of the lot.
Spain v Italy: UEFA Euro 2012 final preview
Tomorrow’s final offers something of a clash of styles, some enticing protractor candy for those who are that way inclined. Spain have had to bullishly defend themselves against accusations of being boring in this tournament, their obsession with possession frustrating supporters and commentators but remaining an effective strategy as they seek to win their third consecutive major tournament.
Spain’s reputation arguably suffers by comparison with the club that pioneered their approach, Barcelona. The national team is blessed with mind-bending quality which allows them to maintain the kind of possession percentages that will define an era, but they do not have Lionel Messi – the ultimate attacking weapon – at their disposal. Notably, they also do not have David Villa, which could be a factor in the aesthetic difference between Spain of 2010 and their 2012 counterparts: necessity begets adaption and pragmatism.
Italy, themselves traditionally associated with restrictive football, are an altogether different proposition under Cesare Prandelli, but a sturdy defence has been a vital part of their success this summer. It’s been robust in spite of injuries, suspensions and the resulting instability, even a change in the shape of the team has done nothing to derail the Azzurri’s charge to the final, which speaks volumes of the coach and of his players.
The defensive line-up that has been most recently adopted will remain tomorrow, but the faces could change. Prandelli has a dilemma in light of his team’s superb showing against the Germans. Napoli’s Christian Maggio seems likely to miss out on his return from suspension, with Ignazio Abate expected to be fit. Another option open to Prandelli would be to stick with a winning formula; Giorgio Chiellini stood in at left-back against Germany and Federico Balzaretti switched to the right. Abate seems the favourite to start, however.
At the other end Mario Balotelli and Antonio Cassano are forging a potent partnership. Both are expected to shake off minor problems in time to start against Spain and the Manchester City man in particular is at the very top of his game. His brace against Germany in the semi-final was as thrilling as it was unerring, and when Balotelli is in that kind of form there aren’t many defenders who can stop him. Worryingly for Spain, he’s got a very credible foil in Cassano and a deadly replacement should Antonio di Natale be required in the final.
The jewel in the Italian crown, though, is in the middle of the park – and it’s not just Pirlo. The midfield is built on the Juventus playmaker, his AC Milan counterpart Riccardo Montolivo and Roma legend De Rossi, by an enormous margin my favourite player at the tournament who isn’t Olof Mellberg. His bite is well recognised and his passing is under-rated, while Pirlo is likely to be remembered as the player of Euro 2012 and Montolivo has deservedly won plaudits of his own in the knock-out rounds.
For all its inherent complexities, Spain’s selection for the game tomorrow is far simpler. We know the defence and the core of the midfield, and the question that remains is whether Del Bosque will plump for a striker or a sixth “midfielder”, as he did when the two finalists drew 1-1 on the third day of the competition. Cesc Fabregas has found favour in the so-called false nine role and is likely to keep his place.
On television in the week, Gianluca Vialli discussed the 4-6-0 formation that Spain have made their own and defined it in a way that (a) beautifully encapsulates what it’s all about and (b) put the BBC’s other pundits to shame – and I’m not even the kind of viewer that cares greatly about the finer points of football tactics. The system effectively amounts to eight midfielders, said Vialli, acknowledging the attacking skills of Spain’s defenders. The space left behind in the final third becomes the striker. In other words, it’s bloody difficult to defend against.
A fascinating final awaits and it’s a difficult one to call. Spain have been solid but for me the momentum is with the Italians. They have form players all over the pitch and have all the tools to cause Spain some very significant problems. One thing’s for certain: to beat Italy, Spain will need to be at their best. That can only be good for the neutral.