The conclusion of this magical tournament is upon us and two Mediterranean footballing powers are ready to clash tonight in Kiev Olympic Stadium. Surprisingly enough, both of these teams met in their first group game of Group C, with Italy striking first but Spain equalizing shortly thereafter and the match ending in a tie. The result was one of the better games in the tournament at the time and neutral fans will be hoping for a similar showdown.
As with any final, there is a lot of history on the line in this matchup as Spain looks to be the first footballing nation to win three straight major tournaments, a run that began when they won Euro 2008 against Germany and continued in their World Cup victory over the Netherlands in 2010. Spain is enjoying a golden generation, something that Iker Casillas, Spain’s number 1 and captain, alluded to in a press conference today in an effort to highlight the hunger that the Spaniards still maintain because it may be the twilight of this era. In the last two major tournament victories Spain has not allowed a goal, giving a certain level of gravitas to their keeper’s remarks. Furthermore, Spain has not allowed a goal in this Euro since that first goal of the tournament against Italy.
Italy, on the other hand, have been far removed from their historic football prominence as this Spanish fiesta has occurred over the past 8 years or so. Italy came far in Euro 2008 only to be eliminated in penalty kicks by Spain and had a very poor showing in the World Cup, prompting the Italian Football Federation to remove Marcelo Lippi, Italian managing hero of World Cup 2006, and replace him with Cesare Prandelli who has integrated youth into the team and has enjoyed great success as coach. Some bastions of the old Italian guard remain in Andrea Pirlo and captain Gianluigi Buffon, but the youth movement from the likes of Antonio Cassano and Mario Ballotelli have beent he life blood which has allowed Italy to look comfortable playing a brand of football that is unlike their historical Catenaccio stalwart defensiveness. Their offensive firepower proved too much to handle for tournament favorite Germany in their semifinal match and may have been a surprise to those who were still reading the tired Italian playbook and expecting much of the same. Instead of Italian focus being on a defensively willed squad led by a legend like Nesta, Maldini, or Cannavaro; the midfielder Andrea Pirlo is the heart that circulates the life blood across the pitch in a fashion that is not unlike how Xavi or Andres Iniesta guide the Spanish ship.
Often during this campaign, the managers of both campaigns have made intriguing decisions but it would be wrong to say that Prandelli’s inventiveness hasn’t reaped more rewards than Spain’s del Bosque’s. Prandelli confused Spain in the first match and surprised other opponents on their path, while Vincente del Bosque has been confusing more often than not. Some will say that Italy deserved to win because they created greater chances, most notably a stage-fright effort by temperamental post-teenager cum golden boot candidate Mario Balotelli that we’ve included for your viewing pleasure.
Perhaps Ballotelli forgot which team he was on and thought that he was actually one of the Barcelona players who was playing for Spain.
His recent form however, shows that he has remembered which team he plays for, creating a powerful juxtaposition with Spain’s top man Andres Iniesta.
One thing that VdB’s squad has done well is defend, an unheralded quality of the team that needs to be noticed after stymieing as surging CR7 in the semifinal against Portugal. If Spain want to lift the crown once again, they must find a way to take away Andrea Pirlo’s surgeon-like passing ability and creativity. A team that did that well was Croatia, when they employed a 4-3-2-1 in the second half of their group stage match with Italy and Luka Modric continued to surge ahead and force Pirlo on his heels. Spain has not played that formation this tournament, however Vincente del Bosque’s recent decisions have never been dictated by precedent or familiarity; he’s often over-thought the task at hand. If Spain lose, however, maybe they will regret not partaking in the biscotto match-fixing effort with Croatia that Uefa alluded to before Italy’s final group stage match with Ireland when the Azzurri would’ve been eliminated if Spain and Croatia decided their game in a 2-2 draw.
So enjoy the match and get ready to see our predictions in shortly! Also, follow @GdanskIfUWant2 on Twitter for some live tweets/drunken commentary.