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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
“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
Will Spain write history?
The Spanish Armada were looted in the Champions league semifinals. Can the La Furia Roja be stopped? Indranath Mukherjee presents their case for Euro 2012
France won the Euro 2000 after winning the 1998 FIFA world cup. Germany had won the World Cup in 1974 after winning the Euro 1972. Spain will look to defend the Euro title and thus create history by winning Euro before and after World Cup championship.
Although the Spanish clubs have won the European club championship most number of times (14), the national team has been a perennial under-achiever until recently. With players like Alfredo Di Stefano, Luis Suarez and Ladislao Kubala, Spain was a fabulous side in the very first edition of Euro (1960). But General Franco decided to withdraw the team for political reasons before their match against the eventual champion Soviet Union. Earlier they had defeated Poland 4-2 away (Di Stefano 2, Suarez 2) and 3-0 at home (Di Stefano, Gensana, Gento). In the next edition, they went on to win the championship after beating Soviet Union 2-1 in the final. It had been a wait for 44 years after that to win the championship again in 2008 under Luis Aragonés. Vicente del Bosque and his golden generation will certainly like to continue their dominance in the international scene now. King Juan Carlos gave the 61 year old manager the title of the 1st Marquis of Del Bosque last year in recognition of his achievements in leading La Roja to World Cup glory in South Africa. He has now gone public saying that he aims to follow in the footsteps of Helmut Schoen, the West German legend, to become only the second coach to win both the World Cup and the European Championship.
In the qualifiers for the 2012 campaign, Spain has won all of their eight games quite convincingly. However, in the international friendlies since the world cup, Spain has lost a few games: a 4-1 defeat to Argentina in September 2010 in Buenos Aires followed by a 4-0 defeat against Portugal in Lisbon in November 2010 and a 2-1 against Italy in Bari in August 2011. They have also drawn 2 international friendlies during this time, 1-1 against Mexico in August 2010 and 2-2 against Costa Rica in November 2011. But friendlies are friendlies; the teams typically play between their hectic club football schedule and the managers often use these games to try out new players and combinations.
The news of the knee surgery of Carles Puyol might be a little bit of dampener for Spain but the fact is Puyol is not getting any younger. And Spain has enough leadership mettle in the team in their captain Iker Casillas and the Barcelona talisman Xavi Hernández. Another big advantage is their manager; Del Bosque knows how to manage big stars in the dressing room since his days as the manager of Galacticos. He led the Madrid giants to seven titles, including two Champions League and two domestic league crowns. As the manager of the national team, he not only has inherited a bunch of fantastic football players, he has also grabbed the current playing style of Football Club Barcelona – “tiki-taka” (short passing, movement and keeping possession). Although the current Spanish side may not always look as sublime as Barcelona, Del Bosque’s side plays extremely effective football as we have seen in the World Cup in South Africa.
Del Bosque’s bigger worry however will be the condition of David Villa who had fractured his left tibia in Barcelona’s Club World Cup semi-final win over Al Sadd in Japan on December 15. ‘King David’ has not played any football since. He has recovered significantly but Del Bosque is in a serious selection dilemma: “We are on tenterhooks. We are worried because, of course, it is difficult for us to take someone who has not played one game.” Del Bosque will wait until May 27, two days ahead of the UEFA deadline, to have a look at Villa’s condition before announcing the final squad. It’s not easy to venture out to write history without someone who has scored 51 goals in 82 internationals. It’s even harder when Fernando Torres, in spite of scoring some goals of late, is not the same footballer any more. The form of Pedro Rodríguez has been so abysmal this season that he might not get picked up in the final squad by Del Bosque. In a situation like this, the striker who may emerge as the star of Spain and the Euro 2012 is Fernando Llorente. He scored critical goals for Spain in the qualifiers against Lithuania (2) and Scotland (1) and has been in good form this season scoring 28 goals in all competitions for Athletic Bilbao.
Spain got two friendlies coming up against Serbia (May 26) and South Korea (May 30) before the team travels to Poland and Ukraine and Del Bosque is planning to use these two games to try out some new faces like Juanfran Torres, Alvaro Dominguez, Adrián Lopez (all from the Europa League champions Atletico Madrid), Javi García (Benfica), Beñat (Betis), Bruno (Villarreal) and Isco (Malaga). Del Bosque hasn’t called anyone from the clubs which will feature in the Copa del Rey final.. From these clubs, Llorente and the Barcelona gang consisting of Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas, Sergio Busquets are almost certain to find their place to the final squad. Real Madrid already has five representatives in the list. Centre-back Raul Albiol may seem to be a surprise selection, but he will try to convince the boss that he can take the place of Puyol.
Spain will probably play with a 4-2-3-1 formation with Busquets and Xabi Alonso holding the midfield while Xavi, Iniesta and David Silva will take more creative roles for someone like Llorente upfront. Fabregas could bring in further creativity in the mix with Silva going a bit forward. Add to this, the exemplary positional sense of Busquets and Alonso will ensure that Spain will never struggle to create opportunities; whether the likes of Llorente, Torres or Soldado grab them will be interesting to see. They will surely miss the experience of Puyol at the back but Del Bosque should be able to come up with the right combination from the likes of Gerard Piqué, Alvaro Arbeloa, Sergio Ramos, Raul Albiol and Jordi Alba, the young left back from Valencia.
The final 23-man squad is expected to get announced on May 27th and might have new faces but the starting 11 will mostly have the usual suspects. They have chosen the facility at Schruns in Austria to prepare from May 22 to 31, the same venue they used before the 2010 World Cup finals.
Spain will start their Euro 2012 campaign with the Group C match against Italy on June 10, before taking on Republic of Ireland and Croatia. If they can start in a winning note, topping the group will become a formality. Assuming that to be the case, they will face the runner up of group D in the quarter-final. England or Sweden whoever it is should be an easy game for Spain. From semi-final, we may expect to see a repeat of the 2010 FIFA World Cup fixture with Germany and Netherlands as the respective opponents. Spain would love to repeat the world cup performance against Germany in Poland and Ukraine and defend their Euro title. If they are able to do so, this will be the 3rd Euro trophy in the national team’s cabinet, and they will become the first nation to win three straight major tournaments.