“I’m going for Italy, but I think Spain will win.”
“That’s funny, I’m going for Spain, but I think Italy will win.”
The above conversation shows exactly how conflicting and exciting Sunday’s European Championship final between Italy and Spain will be. The talent on the field for both teams will be awe-inducing.; the energy from the stands will be electric. The celebrations and heartbreak will be emotional. Sunday’s final will be the stuff of legend, regardless of the final score. The Spain/Italy Group C opener twenty-one days ago was one of the most exciting matches of the tournament; both teams are guaranteed to bring everything they have onto the field. A prestigious trophy and some milestones are at stake. Neither team will want to leave empty handed. Let us preview what could happen.
First, a little history: This will be the eight competitive match between the Italians and Spanish. Spain has never beaten Italy in a competitive match; read that again: SPAIN HAS NEVER BEATEN ITALY IN A COMPETITIVE MATCH. Before their June 10th match, these two sides last met at the quarterfinal stage of the 2008 European Championships. Cesc Fabregas, the hero of the Spain/Portugal shootout, slotted in the winning kick after a dour 0-0 draw in regulation and extra time. Despite the Spanish progressing on PKs, the game went down into the history books as a draw. Regardless, the Spanish would ride that momentum to the final, beating a talented German squad 1-0 and hoisting their first major trophy in forty four years. Before their 2008 match, the Italians beat the Spanish 2-1 in an entertaining though controversial match at the 1994 World Cup. In terms of competitive matches, the edge goes to the Italians, who have won four times and drawn three times against their Iberian rivals.
What is at stake: Italy is considered a powerhouse of international football, but you would be hard-pressed to have found someone other than a die-hard fan who expected Italy to make it this far. Most pundits had Germany winning with ease, so for Italy to be ninety (or 120) minutes away from their first major trophy since the 2006 World Cup and second ever European Championship trophy (their first and only victory coming in 1968, four years after Spain won their first ever title) is a bit of a fairytale. This is not your typical Italian squad known for playing catennacio, the Italian word meaning door-bolt but symbolizing a highly organized defense designed to stop all of the opponent’s attacks. This Italian squad has been exciting and has played some brilliant attacking football, drawing first blood against the Spanish in their opening match, exploiting the German’s major weakness, their defense, and when taken to the brink, scoring a beautiful, and I mean BEAUTIFUL, panenka (also known as a chip PK). Seriously, if you have not seen it by now, go search for “Andrea Pirlo Panenka” and watch the legend in action with a cheeky little shot. And to add a little superstition, the Italians are playing under a cloud of match-betting scandals. The last two times that happened (in 2006 and 1982), the Italians took home titles (in both instances, the World Cup).
With that said, Italy has absolutely no pressure on them in comparison to the Spanish. For starters, Spain is looking to retain its title; no other team in the history of the European Championships has ever successfully defended their title. In fact, only two nations have ever made it to the final to defend their title; in both instances, they lost. (The Soviet Union lost to Spain in 1964 after winning the inaugural championship and West Germany lost in 1976 after winning it in 1972. West Germany would make it to the final an unprecedented third straight time in 1980 and win the title once again.) On top of that, the Spanish are looking to win their third straight major trophy, something that has never been accomplished in the history of international football. For the Spanish, there will be no other chance to repeat this feat as several players are over the age of 30 and are looking at international retirement. This Spanish squad, with the core built with players from Barcelona and Real Madrid, two of the most talented and exciting squads in the world, wants to go down in the history books as one of the best international squads ever. But with the clock ticking on the careers of several of their players, most notably Xavi Hernandez, the time is now or never.
How Italy can win: First and foremost, the defense will have to shut down the Spanish attack and its pass oriented game. The Italians did a good job in limiting the Spanish attack in their previous match, so if they can do same in the final, the Italians have a good chance of getting a result. After playing three defenders in its opening match, the Italians have played four in the back resulting in two draws and two victories. Expect Italy to play the same defensive lineup that faced Germany with the only possible change being Iganzio Abate returning from injury and sliding back into his right back position, with Federico Balzaretti returning to the left back spot and Giorgio Chiellini returning to the bench. The captain, Gianluigi Buffon, will need to stop everything his defense cannot stop, but he has been playing at a high level for years now, so this should not be a worry. In attack, expect the ageless Andrea Pirlo to continue pulling the strings from his deep-lying playmaker position, with Mario Balotelli and Antonio Cassano providing a 1-2 punch that has proven effective this entire tournament. Bringing in a volatile striker (Balotelli) and a striker just recovered from heart surgery (Cassano) was a gamble by coach Cesare Prandelli. Both strikers have repaid the coach’s faith several times over; expect the dynamic duo to cause the Spanish defense problems. Finally, like their previous matchup, the Italians must play with no fear.
How Spain can win: The game plan will be the same regardless of the formation coach Vicente del Bosque opts for the final: pass the opponent into submission; the tiki-taka style has won the Spanish two major titles and they are hoping it results in a third. The question of the day will be if del Bosque starts a lone forward or opts for a 4-6-0 formation with no strikers. While effective against others, the 4-6-0 was absolutely useless against the Italians the last time around, the wonderful Cesc Fabregas equalizer notwithstanding. However, it could be used again; Fernando Torres is a frustrating though talented striker, Alvaro Negredo was disappointing against Portugal, and del Bosque seems to have forgotten he has Fernando Llorente on the bench. If del Bosque opts for a forward, expect to see Torres in the lineup; otherwise, expect the same lineup from their June 10th encounter, with Cesc Fabregas playing the “false-nine” role. The midfield is Spain’s biggest strength, with Andres Iniesta and David Silva dominating the flanks, Sergio Busquets stopping opposing attacks, and Xabi Alonso and Xavi Hernandez pulling the strings and making plays from the middle. Expect more of the same from this quintet. Jordi Alba and Alvaro Arbeloa are wonderful attacking full backs, but will have to be careful not to get caught out of position in an Italian counter-attack. Finally, Iker Casillas is one of the top goalkeepers in the world; the Real Madrid and Spanish captain has been the number one for club and country for over a decade. His talent cannot be denied and he can be counted on to stop anything and everything his defense is unable to stop. But above all else, the Spanish cannot get into their own heads; yes, immortality is close, but it will not happen unless they play to win, and most importantly, score goals.
Who will win the European Championship: The true winners will be the fans after an exciting 2-1 game. The winner of the actual game, though? That’s too close to call; both sides have too much to play for and will leave everything on the field. In all honesty, it can go either way. Regardless, the game will not be boring and will go down as an instant classic.