Spain and Italy will vie for the UEFA European Championship on Sunday, July 1, 2012, in Ukraine, at Kiev’s Olympic Stadium. The teams, notoriously slow starters in most major tournaments, played to a 1-1 (http://bit.ly/KKptn0) tie when they met earlier this month in Poland, in the opener of Group C. Since then both countries have won ugly in tough matches, experienced good fortune in penalty shoot outs, and even played some inspired football when required.
The coaches, who seemed to have had each other’s number early and declared themselves satisfied with that early draw, have since reached comfort zones by fine tuning but basically maintaining those original tactical formations (4-6 for Spain and 3-5-2 for Italy). So expect both coaches to field very similar teams, comprising the expected players, absent injuries.
So what can we expect of these two veteran football nations in this final?
Italy is surprising even itself in this tournament. Though their determination and confidence are growing as they advance in the tourney, and they are hungry to prove their many detractors wrong, they are a fragile machine. They are fielding one of their less stellar teams in recent memory and the players seem to know this. They are relying on a Juventus foundation that has so far held firm but that at times has looked very vulnerable. And, they are not so much peaking in time as just getting the needed performances from their key players when it was most critical.
Mario Balotelli, for instance, missed more sure goals than almost any striker in the tournament, but scored twice in less than 16 minutes of one half—the semifinals against favored Germany. Chiellini, arguably Italy’s best defender, recovered from injury in time to be a key player in that game and will have time to recover further before the final. Buffon, a world-class goalkeeper, has looked vulnerable at times (watch the first 10 minutes of the game against Germany), but he has also come up huge when it most mattered and done so repeatedly parrying sure-to-score-shots, some from penalties and free kicks (http://bit.ly/N1apBz).
Truth be told, though Italy played their best match of the tournament in their last game, they were nevertheless fortunate to beat Germany 2-1 in that semifinals match. In fact, that game was a microcosm of the team’s progression through the tournament. Take a look at the tape and watch how Cassano’s cross to Balotelli, coming off an awkward and fortunate maneuver around two defenders he was never again able to dribble through, was a nearly botched effort off his weaker leg. The partially mishit ball floats up toward the center of the goalkeeper’s box, rather than zero’s in on the oncoming Balotelli. It is the receiving striker’s height advantage over his marker that clinches the score, albeit with a nice header.
The second goal was even more fortunate in that Balotelli may have seemed to finally break the Italian off sides trap, but he did not. He was sent in on sides because the timing of Montolivo’s pass was pure perfection. Then, once Balotelli took off, he was unsure whether to dribble in or shoot from afar. By the time he made up his mind, the ball had taken a weird last second hop. He was again lucky to score in that his powerful strike was mistimed and thus mishit. Watch as the ball is hit on the side, not square on, because the hop made it move further to Balotelli’s right. The ball is spinning away from goal as it travels toward it; it is the power behind the shot (reckless in that with the whole goal available to shoot at the shot need only have been well placed instead of blasted) that allows it to travel straight long enough before veering away from Neuer and reaching the far right side of the net.
This has been Italy’s play, sturdy defense and on offense half opportunistic inspiration, half reckless if successful hesitation.
Vicente del Bosque has culled the best Spanish team possible from the greatest generation of Spanish footballers in the history of that nation. There is no question that with Carles Puyol and David Villa on the pitch the Spaniards would be an added step better, but with the likes of Andres Iniesta, Xavi Hernandez, Iker Casillas, Sergio Ramos, Gerard Pique, and Xabi Alonso, to pick some of the world’s best at their positions, this team is not just good, on their better days they are great.
Spain started slowly against Italy (1-1), beat Ireland handily (4-0), squeaked past Croatia (1-0) with an 88th minute winner, beat France handily (2-0), and played the most inspired team of the tourney to a 0-0 draw before lucking out in the penalty shootout. Frankly, with Casillas in goal, they could always count on at least having one opposition penalty saved.
But, the difference between the Spanish National Football Team’s progression and Italy’s is that the Spaniards’ victories seemed so much more possible, as if their play—even rusty as it has seemed at times—ensured the odds were stacked in their favor. The Red Fury missed so many goal opportunities while denying so many more, that they should have won most of their games by multiple goal margins. Even so, their goal differential is at +7. And did you notice how many consecutive goose eggs their opponents have put up?
This has been Spain’s play, overwhelming possession backed up by a superb defense, and the occasional break through scoring spree off of consistently creative set ups.
The final game
So what happens now if both teams play as they have been? We have Italy playing with their firm defense bolstered by a speedily swerving around the mountainside corner in a snowstorm go for broke style of offense. Then we have the Spaniards doing their tiki-taka ball possession with a wicked change of pace assault. I think the odds here are we would have a wildly unpredictable game but with a decided Iberian slant.
What if Italy gets its way? Imagine if Italy continues in its rut and they get the best of all possible scenarios with Balotelli scoring early, allowing the Italians to play their preferred defensive style. What then? I think Italy might win, but my bet would be that we are going into overtime before the dust settles.
What if Spain gets its way? Imagine if Spain’s ball-control-crazy-bunch who creates multiple scoring opportunities a game actually converts the professional player standard 50% of their chances? Nothing fancy, just the average. What then? I think Spain wins in a rout.
Finally imagine another probable scenario. We go into penalties. Here we are back to a toss-up. Casillas is worth a save and Buffon is too wily not to be worth another. So that leaves four shots a piece. Let’s even things further by saying it is Andrea Pirlo and Alonso who suffer the saves. That leaves a Ramos, Fabregas, Pique and Iniesta vs. a potential Balotelli, Nocerino, Di Natale, and Montolivo. I think Ramos and Nocerino blow it and the rest score. We go into extra shots and Casillas shows us why he is number one, saving from any Italian, and Xavi closes out his international career with the historic winning shot.