Euro 2012: Italians have class to escape Spain's suffocating embrace
Tournament needs a classic final after tame knockout spectacle, writes Daniel Taylor
Euro 2012 has been a success in many ways but is still waiting for its first classic match in the knockout stages, and, if a good tournament wants to be remembered as a great one, a lot depends on what happens in the Olympic Stadium here tonight and whether the two finalists can conjure up the occasion the competition probably deserves.
Spain against Italy certainly has the potential after what the two teams served up, as a kind of appetiser, when they had a first look at one another during the group stages in Gdansk three weeks ago. Spain demonstrated that night, as they have before and since, that they will almost certainly dominate the possession, but there are legitimate reasons for Italy to deduce that the holders can be at least vaguely susceptible to the right combination of smothering tactics and quick, incisive attacking.
Once, that is, Spain give the ball away, considering this has been the tournament, like no other, when they have out-passed their opponents, more than two to one. Spain have accumulated 3,417 passes so far, compared with 1,530 coming back the other way. It has been a one-way demonstration in the art of greedily keeping the ball, cherishing it as if it were made of bone china.
Cesare Prandelli's side had only 35 per cent of possession in Gdansk but when they did have the ball they at least posed a number of problems of their own. In fact, Spain's defence of the title could feasibly have begun as dispiritingly as their first match of the last World Cup (a 1-0 defeat to Switzerland). Antonio Di Natale had opened the scoring in Poland and at that point they would already have been ahead had Mario Balotelli not passed up a glorious chance. Balotelli dithered, Sergio Ramos had time to make the saving tackle and Cesc Fabregas scored for Spain within four minutes of Di Natale.
Three weeks on, Balotelli looks like a more confident striker coming to the end of the tournament than he did at the start and if that kind of opportunity comes his way again, one senses he will not be so generous this time. Though on second thoughts, don't bet your mortgage on it. The first lesson when it comes to Balotelli is that when things are going well in his life they tend to unravel. Prandelli has managed him excellently, getting the response to dropping him for the group match against the Republic of Ireland, but remember, this is Mario Balotelli. Expect anything, is probably the best ploy.
His improvement over the past three weeks, encapsulated in the semi-final goals against Germany, in particular the second (clocked at 75.9mph), does mark him out, however, as the most obvious threat to Spain's hopes of becoming the first nation to win three major football tournaments in succession.
So far there have been only glimpses of the Spanish one-touch, pass-them-into-submission football at its most devastating. For the most part, their keep-ball has been decorative, often in areas of the pitch that will not really hurt the other side.
One telling statistic is that they have taken 58 passes in this tournament for every shot. In the previous World Cup it was 44. At Euro 2008, 33. Opponents have been worn down rather than subjected to chance after chance.
Italy have actually played with a commitment to attack that vindicates what many Italians feel about the popular perception of their team as being constructed on defence-minded principles -- namely, that it is an unfair stereotype. Yet Prandelli has also shown an astute tactical awareness and a willingness to change formation that is in complete contrast to, say, the rigid 4-4-2 with which England operated.
In Italy's group game against Spain, Daniele de Rossi dropped back into defence in a 3-5-2 formation. He stayed there for the Croatia match but returned to the midfield as Prandelli reverted to diamond formation, with Andrea Pirlo as its focal point.
All indications are that for the final Prandelli will retain the
diamond system that has produced Italy's better performances. De Rossi has been so impressive in midfield the manager must realise that it is too much of a loss to move him back.
So often against Spain the opposition manager will base his tactics around stopping the world champions. Prandelli needs to show caution, too, but can afford to be more a little more adventurous given the width and penetration his team have shown in their past two games. To win, however, they will need to be clinical in front of goal, as they were against Germany but not as they were against England. Spain are simply too good for their opponents to waste chances.
"We don't expect to be in charge from the first to the last minute," Prandelli said. "We have a lot of respect for them, but we must take advantage of our moments. We will have to be at our top level because they are the best side in the world."
Otherwise this might be one of those rare occasions when Spain have to pay special attention to their opponents. When Manchester United have come up against Pirlo in Milan's colours, the ploy has been to keep Park Ji-sung close to him and not allow him time to dictate the tempo. England and Germany both resisted this option and, ultimately, it was a mistake. If Spain do likewise, Italy are playing with enough confidence to believe they can win this tournament for the first time since 1968.
Spain v Italy,
RTE2, BBC1, ITV1, 7.45
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