Later on this evening, could we be seeing scenes like these…..
Or, scenes like these…..
After 30 games in 22 days, it’s July the 1st, and Euro 2012 final day! After goals galore (2.4 a game!) in the group stage, the knockout stages were a tense affair, with the first two 0-0’s of the tournament involving tonight’s two sides, something the billions watching tonight will not want to see. In Spain-Italy, we have an intriguing match-up, the new kids on the block, against the hardened masters of European football.
Italy are Europe’s most successful side ever, winning the World Cup four times (England can only dream), and the Euro’s just the once. No-one expected them to reach the final whatsoever, in fact, I even tipped them to go home in the group stage not too long ago! But, Italy have proven me and many others wrong. They have a compact squad, able to play a number of formations competently, with the opponent never truly knowing what they are likely to face. For example, for their opening match, against the Spanish back in Gdansk, manager Cesare Prandelli employed wing-backs in a 3-5-2 formation, whereas in the next game against Croatia it was a diamond 4-4-2. The fact they can adapt to their opponents so easily, is a sign of the flexibility that all modern-day players need, and it will only benefit the Italians whether they have a goal to defend tonight, or whether they have to go out and score one.
The team have the right balance of youth and experience, splattered throughout. We go to the veteran captain Gianluigi Buffon, who has been able to marshall a mish-mash of a defence all summer, dealing with injuries to key members competently, and succeeding in a penalty-shootout. Whilst Buffon’s exceptionally high standards may have slightly slipped, considering this is his 34th year, he still remains the solid base on which country and club (unbeaten, title-winning Juventus), have built on for a number of years, and if he were to lift the trophy tonight, I’m sure it’d be consolation for Fabio Cannavaro doing the honours back at the 2006 World Cup. Other experienced men like the midfield metronome Andrea Pirlo, hardman Daniele De Rossi and to some extent forward Antonio Cassano, finally leading a successful Italian line-up. Pirlo has been probably the player of the tournament. Scoring against Croatia, and an ever-present, his exceptional passing and vision have seen him create the chances for the variable Mario Balotelli, Cassano and super-sub Antonio Di Natale. His exceptional ‘Paneka’ chip in the penalty shootout against England was the epitome of his class and skill, being able to do that in such tense circumstances, a sure sign of the man and his true ability. The fact he had just sent his pursuers Wayne Rooney and Danny Wellbeck chasing shadows for 120 minutes, meaning nothing as he cooly stepped up to make Joe Hart look a bit of a fool.
Then we come to the enigma that is Mario Balotelli. He’s been lighting up the Premier League for the last couple of seasons, for both right and wrong reasons, combining moments of brilliance (THAT shoulder goal, ‘Why always me?’), with madness (the stamp on Scott Parker, his many strops) in equal measure. Whether you love him or hate him, noone can deny that he isn’t pure entertainment, his attitude and behaviour may at times be ridiculous, but it has made football a more interesting place, his personality standing out in spades from the too well-trained corporate media trained footballers of the present day. There have been continuous doubts about his talent, has he actually got it? This season, with his title and his two goals against Germany in the semi-final, he has undoubtedly proven he has, it is whether it shines through the madness that often encapsulates him in games. A goal in the final, aswell as being a potential winner, would get him the top scorer accolade, something you KNOW he would love, a sure sign he can deliver on the top stage. His hard life (adopted from an early age, plagued by racism in his homeland throughout his career), and his young age, just 21, in mind, his talent will only evolve and progress him, potentially to the levels of a Ronaldo, but that is a long way off yet, a European Championship win, however, would set him on his way.
Now to Spain. An England-style failing streak at major tournaments was put to bed back in Vienna in 2008, continued in South Africa two years later and the trilogy could be completed this evening in Kiev, as they bid to become the first national side to win three successive major tournaments. A win tonight would also make them the joint-most winner of the Euro’s, a further chance for the legacy to be a lasting one, remembered in the history books and by fans alike forever. Since ’08, the core has remained the same, with a few of the supporting cast have been rotated due to retirement (Senna), loss of form (Bojan) and injury (Puyol and David Villa), hinting at a generation of Spanish dominance. This has all coincided with the footballing revolution coming out of the Catalonian capital of Barcelona, with the style of play known as ‘tika taka’ taking the world by storm. It has swept aside many challengers, been stopped by the buses of Inter Milan and Chelsea in recent seasons, and been copied by many, but no-one has seen as much success as the originals of Barca.
Pique, Xavi, Iniesta, Fabregas, Pedro, Busquets and Puyol carried it over from club to country and the formula just worked. Arch rivals Real Madrid added the best of their talents in keeper Casillas, Ramos, Alonso and Arbeloa, an adopted Manc in David Silva, and the Barca-bound attacking full-back Jordi Alba. Then the smattering of forwards that have been rotated or left out completely in favour of the controversial ‘no-striker’ policy, the misfiring Fernando Torres, Europa League runner-up Fernando Llorente and Sevilla’s Alvaro Negredo. Phew. The squad carries as much talent as any other team could hope to carry, Llorente hasn’t yet featured in a game at the tournament, despite scoring 27 goals this season. England would forcibly make him one of us if possible!
Yet, despite this abundance of talent, and recent dominance of the club game, Spain have slightly stumbled along this summer. Qualification from the group stage, came down to the last 10 minutes against Croatia, in a tense game, a dour quarter-final against France followed, then the win on penalties against Iberian rivals Portugal, which secured their place in the final. Yet it was all a bit, whisper it quietly, boring. They didn’t have the same flair and flamboyance that they’d previously carried, instead choosing to be more precise and possession-based in their play, not creating a massive amount of chances. Is it that opponents have finally cracked how to tackle the all-encompassing Spaniards? Or maybe the constant cycle of winning game after game every season, has finally caught up with them, hence the sluggish nature at times exhibited by the side. Who knows. To say they’ve played ‘boring’ football, yet still reached the final, is to be admired, something many countries could only dream of. They definitely have to be regarded as favourites, which such talent, experience in victory and the style of play which is so well renowned, but the cracks are there to be seen by everyone, it’s just whether Italy will be able to exploit them, as they did to score the opener in the group match just a few weeks ago.
Tonight will be tight. It may not be pretty at times, but then it’s a major final! Both teams have grafted so hard to reach this stage, and with such few goals in the knockouts, I’m thinking a 1-0 win, or even the dreaded penalties, although both sides have already won a shootout each this summer. If I had to choose……ITALY, with Balotelli scoring!