Euro 2012: Spain’s reign on the line as Italy find their rhythm ahead of tomorrow’s final
JUST hours after Mario Balotelli had fired Italy into the Euro 2012 final at the expense of Italy, Spain manager Vicente del Bosque gave a radio interview in his homeland to discuss what lay ahead for his side in Kiev tomorrow.
Del Bosque, a serene character at even the most exacting of times, unsurprisingly shrugged off suggestions his side were strong favourites to become the first ever international side to win three successive international tournaments. But he did talk of Spain and Italy having lived “parallel lives” throughout the tournament.
From his point of view that may be a fair assumption. They did meet in a 1-1 draw at the start of the competition and eventually both progressed from Group C. They have both needed the help of penalties to get past obdurate opponents after the only two 0-0 draws in the tournament thus far and disposed comfortably of fancied nations in their other knockout game.
However, the international perception of how they have arrived in Kiev has been very different and somewhat in reverse.
A win tomorrow evening would probably cement Spain’s place on top of the podium of all-time great international sides. Yet, the outsiders’ affection for the “tiki-taka” style that enthralled in 2008 and even in spells in 2010 has largely been replaced by frustration and, in some cases, boredom.
The Spanish have traditionally loved to berate the Italian football culture. The picture of Luis Enrique with blood pouring from a burst nose courtesy of Mauro Tassotti at the 1994 World Cup is the indelible image of the brutality and ugliness that to them is calcio. Now, though, the shoe is on the other foot, Spain’s remarkable run in tournaments (which dates back to finally beating Italy in a competitive match at the Euros four years ago) has been built on a run of nine consecutive clean sheets in knockout games – a feat that even catenaccio could never accomplish.
Italy, meanwhile, are free-flowing under Cesare Prandelli, a team that has brought the Italian people’s pride back not just because they have progressed to the final, but by the manner in which they have done so.
No side containing Balotelli could ever be labelled boring, but the Manchester City striker is just one component of a well-structured unit put together by a demanding coach. Old heads Gigi Buffon and Andrea Pirlo have continued the form that guided Juventus to the Serie A title without so much as losing a game, Danielle De Rossi brings his trademark aggression in midfield and Antonio Cassano has remarkably recovered from a minor stroke in November to be the perfect foil for Balotelli.
Prandelli’s ideals were summed up when, after defeating Ireland 2-0 to secure a place in the quarter-finals, he still wanted more. “We have to play more passes,” he said. “We have to have more ideas; it is not enough just to win.”
As Del Bosque can claim though, it is still the winning that counts. Spain have discovered that more passes doesn’t necessarily mean more ideas, but it has allowed them to win.
Control is the world champions’ mantra. When Spain ping the ball around teams with ten men behind the ball, the question is often asked, well how many of those passes actually matter? Del Bosque’s response is they all do; they all contribute to wearing the opposition down, to helping create space when teams get tired and, most crucially of all, reducing the opponents’ chances of scoring.
“We know that if we keep a clean sheet one goal is enough and with the control we have and the chances we create, that goal always arrives, says Gerard Pique. “Our style of play has led us to success, to winning titles,” insisted Andres Iniesta ahead of the semi-final against Portugal. “Why would we change now?”
Pique and Iniesta play a part in a Spain side with a different idea of how to win the game than they do with Barcelona. At club level, they are more daring. Barca allow the opposition to create five chances a game, confident they will outscore them with the 25 they create. That strategy, though, lends itself to the odd freak defeat as Chelsea showed in the Champions League semi-final. By contrast, Spain take a zero-risk approach where they may not create the same number of opportunities but reduce the opponents to practically none. In their last two games, Portugal and France managed a combined one shot on target in 210 minutes of football.
The irony is that the Spanish winning machine is so ruthless it passed up the opportunity to dump Italy out of the competition in the group stages as they honourably beat Croatia 1-0 rather than settling for the score draw that would have sent the Croatians through at Italy’s expense. “I was calm in the days before that game,” said Buffon. “I knew Spain would behave like a great champion.”
The challenge for Prandelli now is to incorporate Italy’s new image into a plan capable of dethroning that champion.
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