On paper and with the bookies, Spain looks very much set to clinch its third European title, but only a fool would write Italy off, especially with Marion Balotelli hitting form at exactly the right moment. Preview by ANT SIMS.
If football matches were “choose your own adventure” type novels, not a single person with the option to choose over 40 different endings would have ever arrived at this one, no matter how many times they went back to square one. At the start of the tournament, Italy had less than a 10% chance of reaching the final.
It’s good for the romantics of the game, the underdog with its posterchild for unapologetic rebellion has overcome a mountain of odds and now stand on the verge of creating history. Italy has only once won the European Championship and that was more than 40 years ago. Spain has two titles and is the current reigning champion team. Interestingly, the last time Italy bagged the honours, in 1968, Spain were the reigning champions. In essence, it means nothing of course, but for those who like to cling to ominous signs – it might bring some sort of comfort.
The teams have met once in the competition already, during the group stage in a forgettable match, which resulted in a 1-1 draw, but the stakes are far higher this time around. The odds from the bookies* are in Spain’s favour with Spain at 21/20 and Italy 24/10 – it seems sensible on paper, but stranger things have happed this tournament.
Without David Villa in their arsenal, Spain has struggled, and with Fernando Torres still misfiring, they have looked much less threatening than the team they adopted their style of play from. Barcelona, of course, has the luxury of the mercurial Lionel Messi, but Spain has to make do with a “false nine”. Barring their 4-0 thrashing over Ireland, Spain have looked a shadow of the team which dominated the competition last time around and the team which put in such a clinical performance in the World Cup back in 2010.
Against Portugal, Spain was almost caught off guard a few times as its Iberian neighbours sat back and waited to catch them on the break – that exact style of play is something Italy has been able to perfect. If Italy can remain patient, defend and wait for a moment of Mario Balotelli brilliance to counter the passing passé of Spain, the game is theirs.
The Spanish’s tiki-taka style of play has helped them build a reputation of everything from boring to brilliant in the last few years, but just like the cracks started to show for Barcelona this season, so too the cracks have shown for Spain, and if Italy can play the counter as well as they did against Germany, the final could turn into a seriously juicy encounter.
Players to watch
Does lightning strike twice? Time will tell, but if Mario Balotelli brings just one third of the brilliance he brought to the semi-final, Italy will be hard to contain. Gianluigi Buffon will be equally important; he looked slightly off-colour for the first few minutes during the semi-final, but found his form and kept brilliantly for the remainder of the match.
Cesc Fabregas has had a good tournament and if Spain opts to stick with the routine of not starting a striker, Fabregas’ role will be crucial. He’s got a strong striking foot and a great first touch and if can get his shots on target, he could be hard to contend with. Xavi Hernández is yet to score a game or contribute with an assist in the tournament, but he’ll be a pivotal part of the Spanish attack – he’s the king of crosses and his passes are surgically precise. He might not score a goal, but he could be the key to feeding the ball through to those who can. DM
*Betting odds from Voltbet.com
Photo: Spain soccer fans cheer in the Euro 2012 fan zone in Kiev, July 1, 2012. Spain will play its final of the Euro 2012 soccer championships against Italy in Kiev on Sunday. (REUTERS)