Twenty-three days ago, at the National Stadium in Warsaw, co-hosts Poland kicked off the 2012 European Championships. Since then we've witnessed the rise and fall of Russia, the disappearance of the Dutch, more penalty heartbreak for England, Portugal's self-styled Cristiano Ronaldo show and an awful lot more besides. In terms of the quality of the football on offer, the tournament has been almost universally declared a success. Tonight, to bring the curtain down on the competition, Kiev's Olympic Stadium will welcome the two nations left standing: Spain and Italy.
For Spain the final represents the culmination of a project that could see them become the first team to win three major tournaments in a row since Uruguay took the Olympic title in 1924 and 1928, then the inaugural World Cup in 1930. Curiously though, where as in 2008 and 2010 their brand of tiki-taka play was heralded as the definitive blueprint for aesthetically pleasing football, the Spanish now find themselves accused of stifling, even suffocating, the game. It appears that though once once we all adored Spain, now we are simply bored of them.
Though Vicente del Bosque's insistence at times to not select a striker has raised the eyebrows of those who have come to view Spain as some sort of experiment in Art Nouveau football, there's no denying that Spain deserve their place in the final. For all the careful possession, they have also been clinical when they have needed to be, such as in the demolition of Ireland, the great escape against Croatia as time ebbed away, and the bludgeoning of a France side that seemed to have finally put their demons to bed. Such results make you wonder whether the criticism levelled at Spain is entirely fair. Should del Bosque guide his team to a historic victory, his approach will surely be vindicated.
It appears that though once once we all adored Spain, now we are simply bored of them.
The Italian narrative meanwhile is a familiar one. As in 1982 and 2006, the Azzurri headed into the tournament with their domestic league structure in turmoil. Calcioscommesse – the name attached to the current betting scandal that has rocked the professional game in Italy – has dominated the front and back page headlines across the nation this summer, and the issue is far from resolved. But, as in 1982 and 2006, the national team have shown incredible resilience and mental strength to reach a major final in the face of such adversity. Remarkably, in 1982 and 2006 Italy didn't just make the final, they triumphed. If Cesare Prandelli can steer his team to glory tonight, it would complete a hat-trick a of victories every bit as remarkable as the trio of successes that awaits Spain.
Like del Bosque, Prandelli too has played his own tactical master-strokes over the last three weeks. Switching to an untried 3-5-2 system for their opening group stage encounter, against Spain no less, Italy controlled large parts of the game against the world champions. But just as importantly, Prandelli has shown no qualms in switching back to the 4-3-1-2 favoured by the Azzurri in qualification, and the system that saw them dissect the much fancied Germans in the semi-final. Holding the scalpel to the throat of Joachim Loew's side was the swaggering Mario Balotelli, whose partnership up front with the equally maverick Antonio Cassano has clicked at just the right time. Cassano is the brains to Balotelli's brawn, as the tricky forward showed with the beautiful turn and cross to lay on Italy's opening goal in Warsaw on Thursday night, and the duo pose a very real threat to Spanish aspirations.
Between the draw with Spain and sending Germany home, Italy have been superb for 45 minutes against Croatia before taking their foot of the accelerator and allowing Luka Modric to drag his side back into the contest, dismantled Ireland in nervous fashion thanks primarily to the guts and gusto of Balotelli and Cassano, and sent England home in familiar circumstances. At all times, they have been guided imperiously by Andrea Pirlo. The Juventus midfielder, now 33, is already a candidate for man of the tournament, and Spain's midfield carousel may well have to delegate to somebody the task of minimising Pirlo's time on the ball if they are to avoid defeat.
Spain's route to the final meanwhile saw a more comprehensive routing of the Irish, but an equally nervy encounter with Croatia, settled by Jesus Navas' late winner, before a particularly poor French team were dispatched with ease. An Iberian showdown in the semi-final was settled through penalties as a reshuffled el clasico failed to live up to it's pre-match billing. Still, Antonio Di Natale's strike remains the only goal Spain have conceded at the tournament, and as they remain on their incredible winning streak of 19 competitive games that began against Italy four years ago, they are heavy favourites to make it 20, and lift the trophy that result would yield.
Every area of the pitch poses questions, and there's a mountain of off the field fascinations that set the tone for an explosive encounter.
As a guidebook for tonight's final, the thrilling group stage encounter in Gdansk three weeks ago may not offer us much. Since then Italy have reverted back to their 4-3-1-2 system, and Spain have shown signs of abandoning their striker-less 4-6-0 that has been the source of such chagrin. Still, putting aside all the tactical intrigue, that encounter offered some glorious and compelling football. Regardless of how each side lines up tonight, if they both perform to a similar level it promises to be a classic final.
There are, of course, key areas where the game could be won or lost, and chief amongst these is the midfield, such is the dominance of possession that Spain enjoy. Claudio Marchisio, Daniele De Rossi and, if selected, Riccardo Montolivo face a huge task in making the midfield battle a combative one, whilst also protecting Pirlo. It's unlikely the Italian midfield will press the likes of Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez particularly high up the pitch, preferring instead to allow them time on the ball whilst remaining defensively strong, and look to play on the break.
Without their defensive talisman Carlos Puyol, Spain have at times looked suspect at the back, despite only conceding once in the tournament so far. Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique will need to be at their best to contain the explosive duo of Balotelli and Cassano, who have grown into the tournament with every passing minute. Should del Bosque persevere with Cesc Fabregas operating as the falsest of false nines, the duel between the Barcelona midfielder and the man delegated to stop him – most likely De Rossi – will be intriguing.
In truth there is a hundred reasons why this could be one of the finest finals of a major tournament we've ever witnessed. Every area of the pitch poses questions, and there's a mountain of off the field fascinations that set the tone for an explosive encounter. Let's all just hope, like Mario Balotelli and the Spanish tiki-taka, it lives up to the hype.
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