Step On To Greatness: Euro Final Preview

Match Facts

Final: Italy vs Spain

Sunday, 01 July 2012

2045 (local time); 1445(EST); 0015(IST)

Stadion NSK Olimpiyskiy, Kiev

There are quite a few self-help books which preach how one can achieve success in life or attain greatness. Most of them have a particular tenet in them – Belief in your own ability. Euro 2012 has thrown two teams in the final, who have had to pass through the extreme test of not just overpowering the opposition, but also those that concern your inner demons. Sometimes those demons are situational – like what Spain are enduring. Once hailed as the ultimate footballing spectacle – the tiki taka brand of passing is now derided by most of the footballing fraternity as a defensive and boring tactics. It doesn’t inspire the joie-de-vivre of 2008 or 2010. The fact that Spain has not conceded a goal in a knockout round of games, stretching back to 2008 Euros is what is often forgotten, highlighting the million passes that they have played in those games. But really, is it so dramatic a shift on Spain’s part? They have probably the best set of passers in any European midfield banded together, who can protect the ball as well as do damage to the opposition. It’s a different thing, and protecting the ball has been more important to Spain in 2012 Euros than doing damage to the opposition. A stat which illustrates that is that in Euro 2008, Spain completed 33 passes per shot; in 2010 World Cup, it went up to 44 and in Euro 2012 they have completed 58 passes for each shot. That Spain have not started Pedro and Jesus Navas, shows they have abandoned their wing play. And then couple that with the situation of not starting a forward and you get a team that is clinging to its strength to the extreme that they are only concerned about the result and not about the manner in which it is obtained. There are many amongst us, who swear by the quality of the game and not the result. If we call them Purists, then Spain definitely needs an exorcism or two. It’s been a strange journey, where a style of play, so much applauded and appreciated for its invigorating nature, has become an object of negativity – tiki taka being represented as tikitakanechio because it has embraced a functionality to itself that was once purely creative.

Italy score through Di Natale in the group opener…
…but Fabregas equalises via a Silva assist

It’s been exactly an opposite ride for Italy under Cesare Prandelli. A man who was entrusted with the job of pulling the Azzurri out from the ashes of Marcello Lippi’s egoistic bonfire of 2010 world cup campaign, Prandelli has already done the unthinkable. His Italy has carved an identity which is unique in the Azzurri history. Here comes a team that has become likable, exciting, attacking, and creative and the neutral’s favourite. This is a far cry from all the great Italy teams of yore (and there are quite many of them). Gone are the adjectives – boring, defensive, cynical and most importantly the C word (you can now find it attached to Spain). The great Italian teams were defined by one word – functional. They just knew how to win, even if it came via less than spectacular means. Prandelli, has changed that. His Italy side are arguably the most attacking unit in the Euros, having created more chances and more shots on target than any other team.  The defense is still strong (though Spain has conceded 2 less goals), the midfield is creative and the attack line actually playes 2 strikers, without lumping-it-forward-to-the-big-man style that most teams playing 2 forwards (like England) did. Prandelli has a vision and this Italy has shown it is capable of winning, while still sticking to that vision. The nature of difficulties that this team has faced are not minor: top striker breaking his leg and not coming to the euro; top striker with a heart disease that almost finished his career; top defender ruled out at last moment due to a attention-seeking dawn raid by the police; country prime minister calling for the team to withdraw from Euro 2012 only days before it was to start and many more. Let’s just say, that no Italian fan would have been disappointed if Italy had exited at its first hurdle. The team was not thought to be ready. The players were not thought to be fit. The group was thought to be really tricky. And yet three weeks down the line, there is only one team that has never fallen behind in any match and that team is not the reigning world and European champions. It has been a story of far greater magnitude than the tournament itself. Win or lose the final, Prandelli and Italy has already assured they are winners in their own rights. Whether this relaxes them to a victory or makes them complacent and leads to a defeat is the point to see.

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The battle that would define the Europe Crown

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Both teams are on the cusp of greatness. One team can cement its name as the finest of all time by winning three major championships that no European team has ever done. It may only be a statistical greatness but one that history would always cite. The other team can redefine the entire nature of how the whole world sees them – by doing what no other Italian team has done – win while entertaining. It is a battle for immortality. And the team that trusts its strength more will prevail in the end.

Form Guide

Spain and Italy are rightly the only teams which are undefeated in the tournament (though England too, technically, can claim a pie off that moniker). Both teams have been extremely successful in their defense – conceding 1 and 3 goals respectively. Attack wise too, Spain have scored more goals Italy, have played more passes than Italy. Deservedly, they will start as favourites for the match. What the Italians can look back though is that, the only time Spain looked shaky and actually fell behind, was when they played the Italians in the group opener. Italy largely bossed Spain in that match and can claim the moral victory. A similar performance is not beyond them, especially with many of the misfiring elements – Cassano and Balotelli getting into form. The central defense is stronger by the return of Andrea Barzagli, whose absence, had in effect forced Prandelli to start Daniele de Rossi as a central defender in that match. De Rossi, Marchisio and Montolivo have been outstanding in the semi final victory and can match anything the much vaunted Spanish midfield can throw.

Does the Postman Ring Twice?

Teams & Formations

Both teams have tried novel tactical arrangements – Spain’s 4-6-0, which incidentally was popularised by Luciano Spalletti at Roma and hence quite well known among the Italian players and Prandelli and Italy’s 3-5-2 which is unique as not a single top level international team plays with 3 central defenders. It was a reactionary measure to Italy’s 3-0 thrashing by Russia in a pre-tournament friendly. Prandelli though started with 3-5-2 and then shifted to his better known 4-1-2-1-2 as the matches went on. But that first match between Italy & Spain hangs heavy on both managers. Spain were far more dangerous once Navas and Torres had come on in the second half. Should del Bosque start with them in the final? If anything, a 4-1-2-1-2 isolates the Italian sidebacks even more and Navas (and Pedro?) can haunt them even more. But it makes Spain weak in the centre of the field and Italy can hurt them there. Moreover which of the 6 midfielders (from the 4-6-0) does Del Bosque drop, if he is to play Navas (and/or Pedro) and Torres. Can Spain afford to put their faith in Torres? Can Prandelli double guess Del Bosque and start 3-5-2 anticipating another striker-less formation? Or should he trust his own team’s strength and play the 4-1-2-1-2. There are many questions and all of it makes it all the more fascinating tactical duel between two managers who have been known to be affable and polite gentlemen.

Will he start tonight?

Italy (4-1-2-1-2): Gianluigi Buffon; Ignazio Abate, Leonardo Bonucci, , Andrea Barzagli, Giorgio Chiellini; Andrea Pirlo;  Claudio Marchisio, Daniele De Rossi; Riccardo Montolivo; Mario Balotelli, Antonio Cassano

Manager: Cesare Prandelli

Spain (4-6-0): Iker Casillas; Alvaro Arbeloa, Gerard Piqué, Sergio Ramos, Jordi Alba; Xavi Hernandez, Sergio Busquets, Xabi Alonso, David Silva, Cesc Fabregas, Andrés Iniesta

Manager: Vincent Del Bosque

Referee: Pedro Proenca (Portugal)

Quotes

“It’s the greatest joy that we could have given to our people. It’s a joy that they also transmit to us because some pictures and images don’t leave you unmoved, of course, and they make you feel very proud inside.”

Gianluigi Buffon, Italy Goalkeeper and Captain.

“There are a lot of parallels between Italy and Spain: we were in the same group, in either the quarter-finals or semi-finals we went through on penalties, and Pirlo and [Sergio] Ramos scored Panenka-style penalties. You have to like both teams. We both deserve to be finalists.”

Vincent Del Bosque, Spanish Manager

England try to do an Italian job with ‘Catenaccio’

Match Facts

Quarter Final: Italy vs Ireland

Friday, 24 June 2012

2045 (local time); 1445(EST); 0015(IST)

Stadion NSK Olimpiyskiy, Kiev

The final quarter final of the Euro is on us and it is probably the only quarterfinal with no clear favourite. In a way both the teams are on their own way trying to come out of a rut.  On one side, Italy, under Cesare Prandelli, is trying to rebuild from the shambles of 2010 world cup and Prandelli is building in essence for the 2014 world cup and 2012 Euros is probably a milestone in how much progress he has made with this team.  Holding Spain to a 1-1 draw was probably as good as any team has played against Spain in any of the matches Spain has played in major tournaments since 2008. England on the other hand have been forced to rebuild with a new manager and new personnel due to events that were least expected 6 months back.

Pirlo and Cassano – holds Italy’s hope

Roy Hodgson has taken a team that is unspectacular and workmanlike. Roy has shaped his team’s mentality, from the maxim that he must have learnt while managing in Italy – You don’t lose if you don’t concede. England has all been about not conceding, sitting deep and defending with 8 men at times. Their defensive cohesiveness was praiseworthy but they conceded twice from set pieces to Sweden and that remains a big weakness. For their goals too England has depended on set pieces so this will be one of the key match-up points for the tie.  The Italians though have, arguably, more quality in the midfield and has also been more hardworking – England covered 152km in their group matches (3rd best in the group), Italy did 208 km in their group matches (2nd best in the group).

The English are hoping on Rooney & Gerrard to deliver

But Italy has shown their Achilles heel in each of the 3 matches – getting tired and worn out after 60 minutes and while this may or may not be linked to the fitness of Andrea Pirlo, Italy’s metronome, it is something that the English would like to utilise. But England themselves have been poor in large tracts of their matches and possibly wouldn’t even have qualified if not for a glaring refereeing error. In the end, England would probably be playing the more waiting game, trying to wear Italy out while Italy will try to finish the matches in scheduled time. But given how no match has finished goalless in this glorious tournament and no tiebreaker has happened; expect a tiebreaker after a goalless 120 minutes.

Form Guide

Roy’s strategy could well be keep it tight at the back, playing on the counter and then unleash Theo Walcott’s pace at the tiring Italian backline. Italy would instead hope to score at least twice in those first 60 minutes. They have managed to score once in each of their matches in those 60 minutes. The trick will be holding on. Italy didn’t hold on to their leads beyond 60th minute in 2 of their matches.

Teams & Formations

Pirlo and Gerrard are probably playing their last major tournament and both have been magnificent for their teams, scoring goals and assisting them. Both these iconic players have one mercurial forward – Rooney and Cassano, who can score goals out of nowhere. The big talking point though is how Mario Balotelli will do. We all know the talent he possesses. We are also know how big a problem he can be. The Mario that turns up tomorrow will determine which team progresses on to face Germany.

The other point is if Italy will go with a 3 man defence or with a conventional 4 men one. This is key as Chiellini is going to miss this match with injury. Similarly England face the dilemma of if to play Welbeck with Rooney or pump for Carroll in attack. Carroll gives a different dimension to the English, especially in the light of Chiellini’s absence. But Welbeck has been probably the best England attacker in the tournament and would sneak ahead of Carroll.

Italy (3-5-2): Gianluigi Buffon; Leonardo Bonucci, Daniele De Rossi, Andrea Barzagli; Christian Maggio, Claudio Marchisio, Andrea Pirlo, Thiago Motta, Federico Balzaretti; Mario Balotelli, Antonio Cassano

Manager: Cesare Prandelli

England (4-4-2): Joe Hart, Glen Johnson, John Terry, Joleon Lescott, Ashley Cole; James Milner, Steven Gerrard, Scott Parker, Ashley Young; Wayne Rooney, Danny Welbeck

Manager: Roy Hodgson

Quotes

“It will certainly be close because the sides have very similar qualities, and also because Italy have a habit, which is both a pro and a con, that whoever we play – whether our opponents are strong or weak – it’s always an even contest. If we play against the best, we match them, but if we play against weak sides we never manage to win with ease. We always have to struggle a bit, so I think the difference between the two sides will be very, very, very, subtle indeed.”

Gianluigi Buffon,  Italy Goalkeeper and Captain.

“The closer you get, obviously you start realising that maybe there’s a chance we can go and do something really special. In saying that, football has a tendency to sting you when you start getting carried away, so we need to realise our main focus and that’s Sunday.”

Scott Parker, England midfielder and 2011 Player of the Year

Azzurri hope to end 44-year drought

The Azzurri hopes to end 44 years of drought at continental competition. For a nation which has won the World Cup the maximum time from the continent, and yet won the continental honours only once, this is a pivotal tournament. Rossella Marrai brings to life the Azzurri preparation and issues

Italy will look to replicate their only Euro success from 1968, forty-four years later, when they kick off their tournament in Poland on June 10, against the defending European champions Spain. Drawn alongside the 2010 FIFA World Cup winners and the Azzurri in Group C, lies the tricky Croatia and Giovanni Trapattoni’s Republic of Ireland; a group Cesare Prandelli was well conscious to the difficulty of the various tasks which lies ahead.

Can he erase the disappointment of 2010?

“It’s a very difficult group. We didn’t want to meet Trapattoni for many reasons. Plus we’ll meet the world champions. We have to be well prepared in June (2012), because it will be a very tough tournament for us,” Prandelli told Rai shortly after the Euro draw took place.

“I don’t know who will be the worst opponent between Croatia and Ireland, it will depend on the physical shape in June.

“I know that Trapattoni will try to get the best results until the end. Trapattoni told me that he wanted to bring Ireland to train in Italy before the tournament, but now he will change his plans. We will stay in Krakow.”

There is little to be said about Spain that isn’t already known to the football fans, but it is the remaining two teams where things can get complicated for the Azzurri.  Hoping to progress past the first round, shockingly only managing to surpass once in the last three editions of the tournament, the Italian coach has his work cut out.

After the disaster of 2010 World Cup under Marcello Lippi, Prandelli has built a squad which ensured a swift qualification and his players became one of the first teams guaranteed to be travelling to Poland and Ukraine. Conceding the lowest amount of goals in the qualifiers out of all qualifying nations, with the ball beating Gianluigi Buffon on just two occasions, it is expected- especially given the several doubts on the opposite end of the field to have hit the squad- that the defence will once more play a huge part for Italy.

The fulcrum for all Azzurri success

Undergoing a relatively smooth travel in the qualifiers, many are expecting a similar walk in the park from the former Fiorentina coach’s men in June; however things have since changed in the turn of the New Year.

Guiseppe Rossi, who was capped seven times in the qualifiers, has since been ruled out of the Euro after he has to undergo further knee surgery to repair torn ligaments, while Antonio Cassano- who was the most capped forward for Italy with 10 appearances- will have little over two months action under his belt after suffering a surprising stroke in October.

Prandelli had previously stated that he would wait and save a spot for the two forwards, as they are ‘best-suited to our style of play’ but now it seems as if all hopes remain on the former Real Madrid man, who so inspiringly lead the four times World Champions in the group qualifiers.

The spark of success or loose cannon?

Mario Balotelli is another character, whose future is in doubt after he was left out of the team’s friendlies due to previous incidences of him breaking the ‘code of ethics’ Prandelli has so clearly laid out. It was against Arsenal where Super Mario may have dug his grave further following his dismissal for unsporting behavior.

Often the face of controversy, the big question falls on whether or not the 54-year-old should bend the rules for the former Inter player, or stick by them and leave behind another one of Italy’s three strongest forwards.

With no Rossi and a Cassano who will be lacking full season fitness, leaving behind the 21-year-old could prove to be Prandelli’s biggest pitfall seeing that there is no other current striker who made waves in Serie A this season.

Unless some twist of unfortunate fate had to occur on Buffon, he will command from in between the sticks, while fellow Scudetto winners Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci are expected to be starters; having tallied up the most appearances out of the defensive unit. Andrea Barzagli, another Juventus defender, can legitimately claim to be the best of the trio in Serie A and two of these three would appear in Prandelli’s backline.

Catenaccio has probably been Italy’s most potent strategy against big guns and with little depth in the attacking front force; a Juventus-inspired backline is expected to conduct the way to any potential success.

The 2011-12 Scudetto winning champions will have an equal amount of inspiration in the midfield with Claudio Marchisio and Andrea Pirlo set to be the focal points of play. The Juventus duo paired up next to each other with six and nine appearances respectively in 2011-12 and are expected to do the same alongside the deep lying defensive midfielder of Roma’s Daniele De Rossi.

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Riccardo Montolivo was the midfielder with the second highest number of appearances in the qualifiers, falling one short of Pirlo’s tally. Given his displays of having to independently steer Fiorentina to Serie A safety, the midfielder will prove to be equally fundamental, notching up a tally of three assists to his name in the qualifiers-more than any Azzurri player.

It has been suggested that the furthest the Azzurri may be able to progress is to a semi-final spot but the tactician has the utmost faith in his current crop of players and will not settle for anything less than the ultimate success.

“I wouldn’t be happy to accept fourth place at the European Championship. I want to dream and we will set off with that dream,” noted Prandelli. “This side has performed above the expectations, but we have plenty of room to improve.”

Room to improve there certainly is as the Azzurri have been far from impressive in their international friendly games coming into the tournament. Since then, Prandelli has made it clear- after trying several evolving formations- that he has come up with a set formation and he is planning to keep it rigid.

“I need to pick the players that suit it- not those who can adapt,” he added.

The Orzinouvi-born coach underlined the failure that was the 2010 World Cup campaign in South Africa but what he should have done is to point out the only constant that Italy have had in the European championship – is their general lack of achievement. Yet it could be a pointer to the only time the Azzurri won the European Championship in 1968, they had come off a similar shameful exit in the previous world cup of 1966.

Despite being a dominant world powerhouse in football, the Azzurri have constantly proven to be underachievers in the Euro, bringing home the title just once. The Euro has often proven to be an unwanted distraction after a long domestic campaign, but this time it seems that Prandelli may have instilled more of a hunger for success in his current crop of players and without doubt he won’t be taking players who feel more obligated to be there than willing.

Failing to meet the expectations of their doting ‘tifosi’ on so often an occasion, recent times it has become the norm that less is expected of the famous players who sport the famous Azzurri shirt. Nevertheless, the encouraging qualifying campaign has seemed to have left some sort of air of optimism before the final trip to Ukraine and Poland, with the players carrying the belief that the tides have turned since their disappointing run after the 2006 World Cup triumph.

One such player who thinks the four times World Champions are a work in progress is the Brazilian-born Italian midfielder Thiago Motta, and he believes his fellow colleagues’ determination to give it their utmost will fall in favour of them in June.

 “There is still something missing, but I don’t think it’s bad to arrive at EURO with high expectations,” the PSG player told UEFA.com. “Teams like Spain, the Netherlands and Germany are the favourites, but our preparations are going really well, so that we will be 100% when we get there: that will be Italy’s strength.”

It is difficult to predict the often unpredictable nature of the Mediterranean outfit’s mentality, but should they manage to continue in the cohesive unit they created in the qualifying campaign. And should Prandelli manage to create a hunger pang for success in his boys, there is little doubt- with the quality in which ‘La Nazionale’ possesses- that the 23 selected players could bring home one more trophy to add to the cabinet.