The final. The 31st match of the tournament. Two teams remaining, the holders Spain against Italy. The teams met in the group stage with the game ending in a 1-1 draw, now they meet again this time in Kiev’s Olympic Stadium for the match to decide who takes home the trophy.
Spain versus Italy
The team selections did little to surprise. Spain sticking with their 6 midfielder system had Cesc Fabregas leading the line. For Italy, Abate was passed fit to return at right-back with Balzaretti unlucky to miss out having played well against Germany in the semi-final. Prandelli resisted the temptation to switch to 3-5-2 which had worked well in the group game and stuck with his midfield diamond.
From the kick off Italy were in trouble. This was a different Spain to the one we had seen so far in the tournament. They were playing with pace and purpose. They were passing and moving with accuracy and speed. Suddenly, having reached the final it seemed as though there was no longer any reason to hold back, no more reason to save legs, to sit in and grind down the opposition, Spain gave it everything they had and went for it.
There had been chances and efforts on goal right from the start. Spain weren’t looking to walk the ball into the net with both Xavi and Iniesta hitting shots at Buffon’s goal. They looked quicker than Italy, sharper on the ball and were pressing the Italians all over the pitch. They weren’t keeping the ball as well as in previous games, but when they had it they looked much more dangerous.
The first moment of brilliance came from Andres Iniesta, picking out a delicately weighted through-ball that perfectly curled into the run of Fabgregas, he beat Chiellini all to easily before finding the head of David Silva with a superbly accurate cut-back and it was 1-0. This wasn’t the wear you down, keep the ball, attritional Spain. This was cut you to pieces with incisive football that nobody can live with or defend against Spain, which to be honest is breathtaking to watch.
Shortly after the first goal Federico Balzaretti came on for Giorgio Chiellini who had been run ragged in the first twenty minutes and whose body had simply given up. The figure of Chiellini looking forlorn trudging off encapsulated what was to come for the Italians. Italy to their credit did have moments where they threatened the Spanish goal with Casillas having to deal with a cross which nearly found the head of Balotelli but Spain hadn’t conceded a goal in a knock-out game since Zidane scored against them in 2008 and in truth their goal was never really threatened in the first half.
Xavi was all over Pirlo and the Italians most creative player was stifled. Fabregas was much more effect, not playing as a false nine but making the runs any good forward would make, stretching the Italian back line at every opportunity. Jordi Alba and Arbeloa always offered width, providing an easy out ball as Italy got narrow to try and stop Spain passing through them. It was Xabi Alonso who was dictating play from deep but also working tirelessly to close Italy down. Every element of the Spain team was working perfectly.
Then the killer blow, just before half time. Jordi Alba fed Xavi and just kept running, Xavi took his time on the ball as Italy tried to hold their shape, but Alba motored passed defenders and was found with an exquisite pass from Xavi, Alba took it fluidly into his path not breaking stride and finished it calmly, side-footing passed Buffon. There was surely no way back for Italy now as the teams disappeared into the tunnel for the half-time break.
Di Natale replaced Cassano for the start of the second half and this was Italy’s best period of the game. Riccardo Montolivo was probably Italy’s most creative player during the final, Pirlo largely being negated by Xavi and Spain’s midfield set up. It was Motolivo’s pass that found Di Natale shortly after the restart, he looked offside, the flag stayed down but as he got his shot away Casillas had already closed the space and saved sharply. Di Natale had already headed a chance over the bar and in truth that’s as good as it got for Italy, despite the fact that they were matching Spain for possession.
Prandelli then made his final change, replacing Motolivo with Thiago Motta which backfired spectacularly to put it mildly. I couldn’t understand why he was taking Motolivo off and the quality of that decision was compounded when shortly after coming on Motta pulled his ham-string and was unable to continue leaving Italy with ten men. The game from here on in wasn’t a contest, it’s hard to say how it would have gone had Italy kept eleven men on the pitch but I think Spain still would have found another goal.
In the end they got two. The first came when Fernando Torres, who had replaced the outstanding Fabregas got on the end of Xavi’s pass after Italy surrended possession cheaply. Torres finished well, passing the ball around Buffon for his third of the competition. Then it was four, Torres again released into space, before unselfishly finding Juan Mata who didn’t feature until the final, but had no trouble finding the net for 4-0. The assist was also enough to secure Torres the golden boot, which I don’t think anyone would have predicted at the start of the year.
The reign of Spain falls mostly on the football pitch
Spain didn’t play their best football to get to the final, but they delivered it once they got there. They were perhaps slightly fortunate to beat Portugal, but the final was never really in doubt. For Italy, it was definitely one game too far. Their legs looked tired and in truth they had exceeded their expectations in beating Germany so impressively in the semi-final.
Spain have now won three tournaments in a row which has never been done before by a European side, Vicente del Bosque becomes only the second manager to win both a World Cup and a European Championship. This stat from the BBC is remarkable “Casillas has won 100 of his 137 international matches, becoming the first player to reach a century of international wins. He also holds the world record with 79 clean sheets.” Are Spain the greatest side ever or are they boring? Well like a lot of teams they’re not brilliant to watch when they don’t play well, but when they do, when they play to their potential, they are absolutely unstoppable.
Highlight of the game: I can’t separate the first two Spanish goals. Both were fantastic in their skill and execution.