Poland and Ukraine have played host to the biggest names of European football over the past three weeks and on Sunday one team will be crowned champions in Kyiv—in the Euro 2012 Final, to be contested between Spain and Italy.
Having already played each other in the group stage of the tournament, a match which finished 1-1, there is little to separate the two teams who have taken rather different approaches to reach the final.
Spain, with their ball retention-first approach having started to infuriate and, unbelievably, bore some viewers, have all the pressure on them to prove they are still the best side in Europe having won the tournament in 2008 and the World Cup two years later in South Africa.
They have not been prolific in the goalscoring department; four goals against Ireland marks the only time they have scored more than two goals in the tournament so far, and in fact in their three matches against Italy, Croatia (group stages) and Portugal (semifinal) they scored only two goals.
A 2-0 quarter final win over France was their other match in which they found the back of the net more than once—and the second of those goals came from the penalty spot in the last minute of the game.
Has the tiki-taka approach run its course, then?
Well, seeing as Spain have reached the final again, obviously not quite yet. The lack of a real striker at times has seen their attack blunted, with fewer runners into the box, but if their defence continues to be as mean as it has been (five games at Euro 2012, one goal conceded) then a single-goal victory will be more than enough—and will provide further evidence that their method of play is still the best one for their players.
And at the end of the day, isn’t victory what really matters at this level?
For Italy, they have rather quietly gone about their business until the semifinals; two uninspiring draws and a shift in tactics led some to think Cesare Prandelli’s team might be catching an early flight home, but a strong 2-0 win over Ireland in the final group game sent them through to the knockout stages.
As is often the case at these summer tournaments, a team who reaches the final doesn’t find their best form until the knockout rounds begin and that certainly applies to Italy; despite a dominating performance against England in the quarterfinals they couldn’t find their route to goal and relied on a penalty shootout to secure their passage onwards.
Against Germany in the semifinals, however, Italy wore the “underdog” tag to great effect, blitzing their way to a 2-0 halftime lead courtesy of their maverick forward Mario Balotelli—almost undoubtedly the man who could win them the final, or lose it.
While Andrea Pirlo and Daniele de Rossi win plaudits for their midfield control and range of passing, Italy do still have issues in a defence which has been chopped and changed right the way through the tournament.
Two right backs returning from injury and suspension could see the back pack shuffled again for the final, despite having kept the attacking riches of Germany at bay until injury time when they conceded a late penalty.
During the final both teams are going to attempt to keep control of the ball, working the angles in possession until they sense the opportunity to strike—but you sense that Italy might do a little bit better when not in possession than Spain.
As a result of their now-natural tendency to press quickly and high up the pitch to win possession back, Spain can appear nervous and hurried at the back when they don’t reclaim the ball immediately—and if the likes of Pirlo can bypass this first wave of pressure with a quick pass, then the Italians can certainly get at Spain’s back line and cause them problems.
Of course, with the likes of David Silva, Xavi, Xabi Alonso and one of either Cesc Fabregas or Fernando Torres on the pitch, Spain are always going to be a danger with the ball—not to mention a little man in huge form who goes by the name of Andres Iniesta.
If Balotelli can score the glory goals for Italy, Iniesta can create the same for Spain.
Euro 2012 is in for a very close final, with two excellent technical sides on display.
Who uses the ball better and gives their front men the best service could ultimately decide the destination of the trophy—and if goals are not forthcoming, a penalty shootout would make for amazingly tense viewing with both these teams having won in that manner en-route to the final.
Spain, of course, have never beaten Italy in 90 minutes in a tournament match—but they did win over the Italians on penalties in Euro 2008.
It’s all to play for and glory beckons for someone, Sunday in Kyiv will show us just who is up to the task.
Prediction: Spain won’t choke and can make it three on the spin, for the first time ever. Casillas to lift another trophy; 2-1 the result.