After three and a bit weeks of football we are finally down to the final two teams in the European Championship. Facing off in Kiev is the team nobody wants to win it all again and the team nobody thought would even get close to the final. Spain are on the verge of creating a dynasty through their unique, dominant brand of football (which some would call boring) while Italy have undergone an overhaul since their group stage exit and the new attitude of coach Cesare Prandelli is certainly paying dividends as his side now has a chance to become continental champions. Both sides have had to overcome massive challenges in their path to the final with Spain struggling for goals and Italy having been on the ropes at times but they have responded and find themselves in a rematch of their opening group game which was an exciting 1-1 draw.
Road to the final
Spain’s 1-1 draw against Italy set the tone for their tournament as they have gone through without losing a single game. In their second game they hammered Ireland 4-0 with the hot & cold Fernando Torres finding the net twice with the group games finished off with a 1-0 win over Croatia that was not without his nervous moments. In the quarter final they controlled France and earned a solid 2-0 win before facing their Iberian neighbours Portugal for a spot in the final. In a game that could have set football back years fans sat through a 0-0 game before having to endure a penalty shootout which the Spaniards won 4-2.
Spain will operate under the premise of, ‘if it’s working, why change it?’ as they hold the titles of World and European Champions thanks to their dominating style of play. Spain will rely on being able to play the ball out from the back, take their time to build up attacks and find a hole in the opposing defence. It relies heavily on fast, mobile midfielders who can cover plenty of ground during the game, almost as though they are the energizer bunny. The two midfielders who act as a dual playmaking threat are Barcelona’s Xavi and Andreas Iniesta and they play their roles to perfection most matches. One of the most overused stats in games those two play is, “in this match, Xavi & Iniesta completed X number of passes, that was more than the other team had combined.” Of course their style is not without critics as some (myself included) feel Spain are guilty of over-thinking when in possession leading to games being tighter than needed. In this tournament they have gone without a recognised striker several times as their normal talisman David Villa failed to overcome a broken leg suffered last December. Look for Spain to do what they always do and hope that they don’t have to chase the game through a plan B.
For Spain the ‘key man’ will actually be one of three players depending on who manager Vincente del Bosque opts to start with up front. In Spain’s 5 matches so far he has started three different players in the number 9 role up front giving midfielder Cesc Fabregas the nod against Italy (to minimal effect) before starting Torres against Ireland and Croatia but after Torres’s poor showing against Croatia he started Fabregas against France. In the last match del Bosque sprung a major selection shock starting the much more physical Alvaro Negredo to combat the Portuguese physicality at the back before replacing him just before the hour mark with Cesc Fabregas leaving Torres on the bench for the entire game, much to the dismay of the Chelsea man as he missed his second straight shootout (the last being his club side’s Champions League final triumph). Whether Spain plays a true striker or opts to go for Fabregas in a ‘false 9’ role, that man will have to provide at least one goal, probably more if they do not want to take the chance of going to a penalty shootout.
Road to the final
After the opening draw against Spain, Italy was given a scare thanks to another 1-1draw against Croatia leaving them in need of a win against Ireland to assure their progression to the knockout stages. Luckily for Italy the Irish team proved to be no trouble as they dispatched former coach Giovanni Trapattoni’s side 2-0. Finishing second in their group on 5 points meant a quarter final match against Group D winners England and after an early English blitz, they came out and dominated the match despite being held to a scoreless draw thanks to a combination of wasteful finishing (on both sides) and England being more than satisfied with penalties. After going down in the shootout the Italians responded to win 4-2 on spot kicks to book a semi final against favourites Germany. In that game the Italians shocked again with two first half goals to Mario Balotelli to win the game 2-1 after a very late German penalty.
Italy won the 2006 World Cup with a style that could be politely described as dull and dour, putting as many players behind the ball as possible then hitting on the counter attack to try and steal a 1-0 win. We saw Italy surprise in their first game going against the trends by playing 3 defenders and deploying the extra man in midfield to take advantage of their excess of talent in that area while playing two strikers as opposed to one which has become the trend in football these days. Prandelli has changed the Italian mindset, no longer is it ok to sit back and defend a 1-0 lead over their opponent, now they will win games by being aggressive and looking for extra goals to kill the game off. When Spain have the ball it will be crucial to pressure the man in possession and not give him time to find the hole in their defense as that is a recipe for disaster.
This game will be no different as the Italians will look to blow Spain out of the water with quick goals and force them to chase the game rather than dictate it. If the certifiable strike force of Balotelli and Cassano can fire on the night then the Spanish defense is in for a very long night as they, along with substitute Antonio Di Natale, have given defenders nightmares all tournament. If Spain get their way and are able to hold onto the ball for long stretches of play, then the Italian front line will need to capitalise on their opportunities and not hope another one will come their way. Look for Italy to play an up tempo, attacking game when they have the ball as they try to outplay their opponents.
Written off by many at the start of the last domestic season, Andrea Pirlo looked like his career was fading fast if not over completely. Released by his club AC Milan and offered a lifeline by Juventus, Pirlo reminded everyone that he was not done as yet as he played some of his best football in the past year. That form has carried over into the tournament as he has been the architect of the Italian attack directing plays and making crucial interventions when necessary. In the semi final against Germany, so concerned were the Germans at his potential impact on the game they overloaded their defense towards him allowing the rest of the team to play and subsequently tear apart the opposition with two first half goals. In the final, Pirlo looms as the key man for the Spaniards as he will need to keep a cool head and pick his moments as the Spanish team will try to suffocate him by holding onto the ball for long periods so when he gets the ball it will need to count.
Given my picks so far this tournament (Dutch to win it all, England to beat Italy, Germany and Portugal to win the semis) maybe you’d be best going against my bets but I can’t go past Spain winning a dull final with both teams playing incredibly cautious football and winning 1-0. Though I won’t be upset if I’m wrong since I think every football fan is at least a little bit curious about what the madman Balotelli will do if Italy wins.