Few would have predicted that Italy and Spain’s 1-1 draw on June 10 would end up becoming a preview of the EURO 2012 final just three weeks later. Each squad has fought off adversities, injury problems, and questionable form among its players to make it to Sunday’s clash at Olympic Stadium in Kiev, Ukraine.
Lineups and Tactics
Spain will undoubtedly play a rough 4-3-3 once more, basically shaping up as a 4-6-0 if Cesc Fabregas is to start as a false nine once again. The defense and midfield will most likely remain unchanged as usual. Alvaro Arbeloa and Jordi Alba have exceeded all expectations and have brought width to La Furia Roja from the fullback position, while Gerard Pique and Sergio Ramos have been absolute anchors in central defense.
Xabi Alonso has been the star in midfield for Spain this summer, and while Xavi Hernandez and Sergio Busquets have not made too much noise regarding the scoresheet, they have done a marvelous job at maintaining possession, keeping the ball on the ground, and circulating the ball all over the field. Andres Iniesta (undoubtedly Spain’s best field player) and David Silva will continue to play as inverted wingers, which results in both higher possession for Spain and constant clogging in midfield.
As it has been all summer, the hot topic once again will be Vicente del Bosque’s decision of what to do at the striker position. After starting Fabregas as a false nine in the first game against Italy, Del Bosque has basically alternated between Fabregas and an actual striker (Fernando Torres and Alvaro Negredo). In the semi-final against Portugal, Negredo was given the start but was practically invisible. Will Del Bosque start Torres or Fabregas against the Azzurri? Fernando Llorente, one of the deadliest target men in Europe and coming off a 30-goal campaign, will only have to sulk on the bench and wonder why he hasn’t stepped on the field this summer.
Italy has an interesting tactical question to answer going into this game. At the beginning of the tournament, center-back Andrea Barzagli was injured, which left Cesare Prandelli no choice but to utilize an unorthodox 3-5-2 formation, enlisting holding midfielder Daniele De Rossi as a center-back. De Rossi has responded with a stellar tournament; he has been one of the most consistent performers on the continent.
However, with Barzagli’s return, Prandelli has adjusted swimmingly, using what appears to be a 4-3-1-2. Although there is no dominant force in the back to anchor the defense, Federico Balzaretti, Leonardo Bonucci, and especially Giorgio Chiellini have played admirably as the Azzurri have stifled every opponent they’ve played this summer. The 4-3-1-2 formation creates a diamond in midfield, which is led by the evergreen Andrea Pirlo, who has played at such a high level in EURO 2012 that he deserves a nomination for the Golden Ball this summer.
At the top of the midfield diamond will most likely be the much-maligned Ricardo Montolivo, who had an impressive game against Germany in the semifinal. Playing in front of De Rossi and Claudio Marchisio, Montolivo was able to run about and break up some of Germany’s passing moves on Thursday; he will most likely be assigned to do the same and attempt to disrupt Sergio Busquets and Xabi Alonso’s movement and passing.
What To Expect
At this juncture, it’s really no surprise to imagine that Spain will keep the ball for the majority of the time. While La Furia Roja will have about 60% of possession, the Azzurri have the tools to break out and counter swiftly. Mario Balotelli and Antonio Cassano frequently attempt to run behind the defense, creating holes if they run in the same direction. Both are skilled enough to gather the ball and beat a defender, creating either a shot for themselves or a cross for someone else. The Italians also have high-quality passers in Pirlo and Marchisio
While this matchup won’t have the same tactical intrigue of the first game (a false nine against a three-man defense), it has the potential to be just as back-and-forth as the June 10 contest. Although Spain’s fullbacks do a good job of running up and down the pitch, there just isn’t enough width up top to stretch the Italian defense. When Fernando Torres came on as a substitute in the first matchup between these two, his finishing was absolutely horrific and cost Spain a win. However, within the terrible finishing, there was a knack for making runs behind the defense that Torres (or whoever will take his place on Sunday) will have to possess for Del Bosque’s side to score a goal at the least.
With right-back Ignazio Abate potentially unable to start the match, Italy may have a lack of speed that could be exploited with pace and width, especially in the second half. This is a particular deficiency that Spain’s fullbacks, especially young Jordi Alba, can look to take advantage of. However, the Azzurri compensate with excellent penalty box defending, a skill that will come in handy considering the pressure that the defense will face 18 to 20 yards away from goal.
Italy will have some substitutions up their sleeve that could prove handy. Antonio Di Natale came off the bench to score against Spain in the first game and could feasibly be an impact sub once again. Thiago Motta is a versatile midfielder that could play anywhere in midfield from the trequartista position to replace Montolivo or as a holding midfielder; his impact could be limitless for the Azzurri. Last but certainly not least, Alessandro Diamanti, the hero of the penalty shootout against England, supplies good pace and energy as a forward and could possibly create a late chance or two.
The two men in form in this game will be Balotelli and Iniesta. Balotelli is coming off of a master-class performance; with both goals in the triumph over Germany, he is the man to watch; with the strength and speed to foil any defender, he must continue his form and deliver against Spain. Despite the fact Iniesta has yet to score in this tournament, he remains Spain’s most dangerous player. Arguably possessing the world’s best first touch, he is an incredible dribbler and can beat almost any defender one-on-one. Once Spain eventually puts the ball on his feet, he can make magic and will deservedly be man-marked by two or three defenders at several points in this game.
Both teams have survived a penalty shootout in this summer’s knockout rounds, so there will be notes to study and patterns to predict for both Gianluigi Buffon and Iker Casillas, arguably the two best goalkeepers in the world right now. For those less serious about tactical play, the team that eliminated Germany in the last three tournaments has gone on to win (Italy in the 2006 World Cup, Spain in EURO 2008 and WC2010); this gives Italy an unofficial edge.
Italy’s rich tradition carries a resume that would be bolstered by its first EURO title since 1968. With a victory, the Italians could make a case for being Europe’s most historic footballing country. It is ironic that for a nation famous for producing world-class defenders, this is Italy’s “worst defense” on paper in a long time. Cesare Prandelli’s men have adjusted to tactics and injuries in order to reach this final; they are absolutely fearless after dominating heavily favored Germany on Thursday.
Spain has a chance to further cement their claim to be the greatest international team (or perhaps team in general) of all time. Between the caliber of its squads over the last four years and the philosophy they revolutionized, it is not unreasonable to suggest that Vicente del Bosque and his Furia Roja are very close to achieving football immortality. For all of the admonitions and negative reactions they have endured this summer, the Spaniards could quiet their critics by winning its third straight international title.
Two Sentence Summary
A potentially epic game featuring two of the greatest footballing nations in Europe and the world. While Spain is favored on paper, Italy has all the ingredients to pull out a victory.