Europe’s Best XI for 2011-2012 Season

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The Champions League Final on May 19 at the Allianz Arena marked an end to the latest European season. With its fair share of drama, controversies on and off the pitch and above all footballing brilliance, it has been quite an enthralling season. Let’s take this opportunity to look back at the season that is gone to decide upon a team of eleven players that can be put across as Europe’s Best XI.

Goalkeeper: Manuel Neuer

The Bavarian shot-stopper in his first season at the club has been in imperious form. He set the club record of maximum time without conceding a goal bettering the previous record of Oliver Kahn. Bayern Munich has been sort of unlucky as they ended the season trophy-less but they went on to play the final of Champions League, the DFB-Pokal Cup and finishing runners–up behind Borussia Dortmund in the Bundesliga. During the course of the season, Neuer was hugely influential for his team as Bayern conceded the least number of goals in the domestic league. In the Champions League semi-final against Real Madrid, he saved penalties from Kaka and Cristiano Ronaldo to take his side through to the final. So probably there is no other candidate who could stake his claim as the keeper of the team more than Neuer.

 

 

Defender: Branislav Ivanovic

The Serbian defender was probably the most consistent performer of the Champions League winning Chelsea backline. He is not a traditional right-back but was preferred in the position ahead of the inconsistent Jose Boswingwa. Ivanovic always provided security at the back with his no-nonsense approach, at the same time he was never shy of going forward and helping out his strikers. Chipping in with a few goals added further dimension to Ivanovic’s repertoire (five goals, which includes the winning goal against Napoli, from a defender in a season is an asset to any team). Chelsea’s topsy turvy season took a complete U-turn under their care-taker manager Roberto Di Matteo and it was his defensive organisation that won plaudits. Ivanovic’s virtuoso performance in the way to the final, especially against Barcelona in two legs of semi-final, deserves special mention.

Defender: Mats Hummels

It can be safely said that Mats Hummels is the most talented upcoming defender in Europe. At such a tender age, the maturity shown by this lad is tremendous. His game-reading, positioning, tackling is top-notch and in spite of being a centre-back, his ability to bring the ball out of the defence to initiate attacks marks him special. His vision and eye for a pass is quite exceptional unlike other rugged German defenders of recent times. For the last two seasons, his partnership with Neven Subotic has been a hallmark of the brilliant Die Borussen side and when Subotic was absent for a period last season due to injury, Hummels single-handedly marshalled the defence to see his side through that difficult phase. Keep an eye out for Hummels as he will continue to develop as one of the finest modern defenders.

Defender: Vincent Kompany

It has been quite a fairy tale season for Vincent Kompany, the captain of the Manchester City side that reclaimed the League after a gap of 44 years. Kompany was a true leader of the side in every sense of the term. He led from the front with his solid displays right through the season. It is hard to remember a single match where he took a wrong step. With the experienced Kolo Toure absent at the start of the season, he took up the responsibility to settle City’s defence. Kompany was so important to Roberto Mancini’s plan that when he was absent in City’s line-up due to injury and suspension, his team’s performance clearly suffered and coincided with a slump in their form. Along with this, Kompany’s ability to chip in with important goals was crucial in City’s success. City fans will fondly remember his header against their archrival Manchester United in probably the championship deciding match.

Defender: Giorgio Chiellini

The Italian defender who is considered by many as a suitable successor to Fabio Cannavaro, Alessandro Nesta and Paolo Maldini was a standout performer of the unbeaten Juventus side. In what has been a standout season for the bianconeri, the side only let in a staggering 20 goals throughout the season. Chiellini who is strong in the air and never hesitates to go in for tackles stood up for the challenge every time and together with his fellow defenders formed a defence which was nothing short of a rock wall. At the same time it is interesting to note that Chiellini had one of the highest conversion rates in terms of accurate passes which shows how he helped his team to build up attacks from the back, thus providing a solid foundation on which the team’s success was built.

Midfielder: Yaya Toure

What a buy this Ivorian midfielder has proven to be for the newly crowned English champions! For the last two seasons, he has justified every penny that has been spent after him. This season he has gone from strength to strength and has responded every time City has looked to him to get out of a crisis situation. There are opinions that bench strength of City is what that makes them stronger than their closest opponents, but Toure is probably one of the fewplayers who can’t be replaced in this brilliant City side. When he was away on duty for his national side in AFCON, City was visibly short of options to replace this midfield dynamo. What makes Toure special is his ability to adjust his game according to his team’s need and situation. Mancini has preferably used him as a deep-lying midfielder but whenever required pushed him up to create havoc in the opponent box. His consistency throughout the season was a treat to watch.

Midfielder: Xavi Hernandez

It’s sometimes very difficult to assess the level of impact of this midfield maestro’s contribution to the all-conquering Barcelona side. May be a few statistics will make clear the high level of standard that Xavi maintains week-in and week-out. He made an incredible average of more than 100 passes per game with an ability to find his teammate at 92.6% accuracy. In terms of creating goal-scoring opportunities, Xavi plays second highest number of key passes in the team behind the one and onlyLionel Messi. Make no mistake, he is the man who makes this genius Barcelona side tick. His contribution will only be felt properly once he decides to hang up his boots.

Midfielder: Andrea Pirlo (C)

The best masterstroke of Juve coach Antonio Conte was signing of this midfield general. The way Pirlo inspired the Turin giants to their dream season is quite exceptional. In the opening game of the season that saw Juve demolish Parma 4-1, Pirlo created two goals and completed 110 passes! Gigi Buffon later told La Repubblica: “It’s the bargain of the century for us. Seeing him play in front of my back line, it made me realize that God does exist.” Pirlo carried this form throughout the season and lived up to his nickname of l’architetto (the architect) . On the field, his poise, control and vision was remarkable to say the least, he played the second most number of passes after Xavi in the continent and conjured up the maximum number of assists (13) in Serie A. Along with these, his class, composure and leadership skills helped Juve to its record-breaking season.

Forward: Cristiano Ronaldo

Just look at Cristiano Ronaldo’s statistics for the season (60 goals in fifty-five games!); except the genius of Leo Messi, it is difficult to see which other present day footballer can scale those heights. He led Madrid to their 32nd La Liga title last season thereby ending Barca’s reign for the last three seasons. Ronaldo scored the winning goal in the season’s last El Clasico derby at Nou Camp which literally ended Barca’s hopes of a consecutive fourth La Liga title. It was also a big response from Ronaldo who has been previously criticized for his lack of match-winning performances in the El Clasicos. It will be interesting to see whether Ronaldo manages to win his second Ballon D’Or this year.

Forward: Lionel Messi

The boy wonder has continued to amaze the football world with his exceptional talent this season too. He managed a staggering 73 goals this season, by far the highest ever scored by a player in a single season. In terms of assists, he is second highest behind Mesut Ozil. In terms of trophies, he and his Barcelona team may have ended the season on a disappointing note but on the personal front, he has pushed the level higher and higher – the highlight of his season being the scoring of five goals in a single match against Bayer Leverkusen. The Messi magic has continued to startle us for the last four seasons and words are no longer sufficient to describe his achievements.

Forward: Sergio Aguero

Last season was his first in English football and what a special one it turned out to be for Sergio ‘Kun’ Aguero. He scored quite a few crucial goals that helped Manchester City to their title after 44 years. Every City faithful will probably remember for years the goal Kun scored in the stoppage time against QPR that ultimately clinched their title from the grasp of their fiercest neighbour Manchester United. He became the talisman for City as the season progressed and scored goals when it mattered the most. His partnership with David Silva was quite exciting at times and besides scoring goals, Kun helped his team with some assists too.

So that’s the team selected as representative of Europe’s Best XI for the season 2011-2012. There is no denying the fact that some wonderful players had to be left out of this team in spite of their brilliant individual performances throughout the season. Special mention must be made of Robin Van Persie, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Mesut Ozil, David Silva, Joe Hart, Mario Gomez, Franck Ribery and Antonio Valencia who were brilliant last season. However, it doesn’t matter whether these gifted players get into a team or not, they will continue to perform at top level for coming seasons and mesmerize every football fan.

Azzurri Surpasses Expectation

Euro 2012 once again showed how Italy can rise from the darkest depths of controversy. Rossella Marrai traces that journey for the Azzurri

Prandelli Pride in Azzurri  Voyage of Discovery

In the words of Vincent del Bosque, ‘everyone loses sometimes’ and it was Italy’s time to lose on Sunday July 1, against the mighty, and quite possibly the greatest teams of all time, Spain. Having gone through the Euro 2012 campaign undefeated up until the final game, Azzurri coach, Cesare Prandelli bowed out in a dignified manner.

It has been an extraordinary championship. Now we have to grow over the next two years. We went through some hard times by staying united. We also showed that we can lose with dignity. I’ve complimented the players.”

Prandelli: It has been an extraordinary championship

A highly impressive qualification campaign instilled some hope in the hearts of the nation of a possible semi-final berth. However, the final weeks of build-up was far from fruitful than that of the yellow brick road they would surprisingly discover.

Calcioscommesse, Earthquakes and Potholed Build-up

In 1982, a betting scandal shook Italy, but astoundingly the Azzurri managed to keep their wits about them to be crowned FIFA World Champions for the third time. Similarly, in 2006, a match-fixing scandal erupted across The Boot, which involved big teams like Milan and Juventus, and this time it was Marcello Lippi who instilled serenity inside the squad while everything crumbled in league football.

That year Fabio Cannavaro hoisted the highly sought-after prize and six years later it was no different. Another betting scandal broke out and it left a tremor of fear when fellow Italian defender Domenico Criscito was hauled up for questioning.

Police raided the camp at dawn

Once all the players were at the disposition of the coach at the famous training camp of Coverciano, the squad was assigned two official friendlies, against Luxembourg and Russia. Undeniably not enough time to iron out any possible formation and tactical doubts that hung over Prandelli.

The first pothole they encountered was on May 29, 2012.  Not only did it affect the former Fiorentina tactician’s preparation but it was a nationwide tragedy, in the shape of a 5.9 magnitude earthquake that hit Emilia-Romagna — the region in which Italy were set to face Luxembourg.

The earthquake hit northern Italy

With the death toll rising, there was no option but to cancel the game; leaving just one friendly match against Russia to get things right. Worlds away from the impressive form of the qualifiers, the Azzurri stooped to a 3-0 loss to Group A contenders. It was a loss which immediately resulted in numerous pundits writing off La Nazionale.

Voyage of Discovery and Avoiding the Biscotto

Little did they know that a sweet and sour voyage of discovery would lie ahead for Captain Gigi Buffon and his boys! Alla stile Italiano (in Italian style) the Azzurri would get off to a slow start in their Group C matches.

As the football gods of fate would have it, Italy’s opening and closing game would be against Spain. Andrea Pirlo and company managed to hold their own against Andres Iniesta and his colleagues in the opener, where they grabbed the breakthrough in the game.

Fortune always favours the brave and it did so, although for all of three minutes, for Italy and Antonio Di Natale. The Udinese front-man boldly replaced an anonymous Mario Balotelli, and rightly so, as he pitched in the first goal of Group C with his first touch.

Since he wasn’t part of the Euro qualifiers, it would be a memorable first touch in 2012 for him after having not featured in a competitive game for Italy since their 3-2 loss to Slovakia, in South Africa in 2010. A bitter memory of thus having hit the final missed penalty in 2008 quarter-finals against the same adversary was also laid to rest.

Antonio di Natale exorcised a demon from 2008 scoring with his first touch

That impressive 1-1 draw with Spain was followed by a barrage of wasted chances against Croatia. Failure to make the most of opportunities created, Italy’s only incision was Andrea Pirlo’s stunner of a free-kick and that was cancelled out by the newly- anointed household name of Mario Mandzukic.

Back-to-back 1-1 draws were far from what Prandelli had in mind, as nothing but maximum points would be accepted in the final match against the already eliminated Republic of Ireland, all while hoping Croatia wouldn’t hand them the famous biscotto which so famously haunted Italy in their 2004 elimination in the Euro against Sweden.

No, I’m not angry,” the 54-year-old tactician said after the match against the Croats. “Of course we are a bit annoyed because a side that plays football and creates chances needs to kill off the game.

Football is rather unique in that way, because just one cross can ruin everything you have built up over the course of a game, so we have a lot of regrets.”

Nevertheless, the best way to get over regret is to eclipse it with the better part of what it could have been and that is exactly what they did against their ally-turned-enemy, Giovanni Trapattoni. Capitalizing on two openings directed at goal, Antonio Cassano and Mario Balotelli gave Italy their first win of the tournament, marking a turning point in their attitude. With Croatia having lost 1-0 to Spain, the Azzurri had managed to dodge the potholes and reach the yellow brick road.

Progress continued by eliminating England in a 4-2 penalty shoot-out, which saw Pirlo, or rather ‘Twinkle Toes’, effortlessly graze the ball past Joe Hart to perform the famous cucchiaio or Panenka penalty.

Pirlo’s perfect Panenka

Whilst fortune, or perhaps destiny, may have played a hand in Italy’s rise, few would have favoured the chances against Joachim Löw’s men; few, except the highly criticized Mario Balotelli.

More often than not it is dangerous to make a bad boy angry and even more so when he is in the public eye. Ballotelli let his feet silence the critics who were all but crucifying him for not living up to expectations. That ‘Balotelli moment’ came with a header and an unstoppable diagonal shot clocked in at 128km per hour which sent Italy through to the final of the European Championship. And ‘Balo’ lived up to the tag of ‘Super Mario’.

Balotelli’s Bulldozer

It was indeed a special moment for him and the Azzuri, one they would cherish as: “The most beautiful day of my life. I have waited for this moment for so long, especially with my mum here, I wanted to make her happy.” It was like this one act had united the squad, Prandelli was getting the recognition he deserved, and an air of belief had restored itself in the training camp.

We came here with lots of non-football related problems, and also the friendlies we played during our preparation went pretty badly,” Gigi Buffon told UEFA.com before the climatic event. “So that’s why we were a bit afraid of playing a bad tournament. But along with the coach we managed to find the right atmosphere within the team, so we could make it here.”

Italy feel La Furia Roja

Spain, the defending European Champions and World Cup winners, were up next and they were on a daunting unbeaten run, of competitive matches, stretching back to their 1-0 loss to Switzerland in their opening match of the 2010 World Cup. Since they had already played Vincent Del Bosque’s ‘false nine’ side to a draw in the opening Group C encounter, the Italians had the confidence but lacked fitness.

The Italians had already played thirty minutes longer than the Spanish, excluding the penalties taken, and were subjected to less rest than their counterparts. Fatigue and injuries were so rife that Andrea Barzagli and Daniele De Rossi could not train the day before the final, Claudio Marchisio was struggling to get into full fitness. Giorgio Chiellini and Thiago Motta were both not 100% fit from their injuries picked up in the course of the tournament and it evidently took its toll.

Chiellini was replaced in the opening 21 minutes due to injury, while Thiago Motta reduced the side to 10 men, due to injury, after just three minutes of coming on. There was little the game changers such as Pirlo and Balotelli could have done during the 4-0 drubbing which left Prandelli awestruck.

When we fly over Kyiv and see the stadium lights I will have pangs of disappointment but I leave proud,” Prandelli said after the game.

Testa Alta, Heroes and Cassano’s Victory

Despite the monstrous defeat, the Azzurri returned winners, for having restored faith in their fans and above all, themselves. Like the papers printed: Testa Alta– Heads held high.

With a shining squad comes a group of star players and Buffon, Pirlo and De Rossi were undoubtedly Italy’s best trio. Having only conceded three goals up until the final, the skipper proved once more why he became one of the highest-priced goalkeepers on the transfer market. Not only did he control his Juve-inspired backline, but his passion and belief in the squad carried Prandelli’s men through the nerviest of moments.

Pirlo’s poise, elegance and grace were stupendous to watch. With each touch of the ball the former Milan man proved he was a dictator of play, from the backline right to the front. The midfielder’s vision was in a class of its own and his goal against Croatia remained the only goal scored directly off a free kick in the tournament. It was a strike which embodied everything that is Andrea Pirlo.

De Rossi proved to all why he hails from the Eternal City. With one hand in bandage and a sciatic nerve problem, De Rossi fought like a true gladiator through the pain barrier. Breaking up play and clearing balls, the Roma player was a class act from the boy which famously elbowed Brian McBride during the 2006 World Cup. His selflessness to help the team even saw him step into the centre of defence, where he intercepted play as if he had played there his whole life.

A story of triumph of human spirit

And although Italy may have left Ukraine with the silver medals, one person walked away with much more than the medal and a runners-up tag. That man was Antonio Cassano. Having suffered a stroke last November, it was initially feared that the Milan striker would never get on to the field again. But not only did the braveheart overcome a heart operation, he even made it to Prandelli’s hand-picked team for the Euros. His eagerness to return paid off and he managed to score a goal and bag two assists, a stellar victory in itself.

While the players may have been fighting off their tears of disappointment after the final whistle, Cassano had one thing to celebrate and that was the most important thing of all: life.

Prandelli Project

The Orzinuovi-born tactician can exude so much humility and joy for he has had his baptism by fire and come out a proud man. Just two years after taking charge from some great predecessors, Cesare Claudio Prandelli took the brave step to change an ultimately successful set-up. The dynamics and outlook of the game were changed. The Italians were playing with passion and hunger once more; they were managing to control the majority of the game and poked around the goal post a lot more. Formation adaptations from a back-three and back-four were done with ease and the stereotype of the famous catenaccio play was dropped. All this was done with success, while keeping the identity of Italian football intact. They turned out to be the most alarming, yet highly positive dimensions in the Italian squad.

Light criticism may have been thrown in the direction of the coach for the underuse of youngsters such as Angelo Ogbonna, Sebastian Giovinco and Fabio Borini. But with a long future ahead under the eye of the youth development king, Prandelli has provided them with an experience like no other and one they can only build upon.

The ‘Prandelli Project’ will continue to grow during next year’s Confederation Cup tournament, a prelude to the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, and if this year’s tournament is anything to go by, I Tre Colori (The Three Colours) will be favouring their chances of success.

 “As long as we play football we are a good side. So long as we try to take supremacy in midfield we are a good side, but if we try to protect a result we become a side with a thousand fears. I have to compliment my team because they really played an excellent tournament,”  said the master tactician, appreciating his team.

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

The Blues fail to conquer their blues

Italy 1 – 1 Croatia

39″ Andrea Pirlo (1-0), Mario Mandzukic 72″ (1-1)

Traditional giants Italy was left in danger of catching an early flight home as Croatia (who has never lost to Italy after gaining independence from Yugoslavia) held on for a gritty 1-1 draw in a Group-C encounter at Poznan. In the process, Croatian scorer of the day Mario Mandzukic equaled the national record for highest number of goals, hitherto held by Davor Suker. But before that, Italy looked all set for a comfortable victory after having being given the lead via a moment of brilliance by Andrea Pirlo

The match didn’t begin at the blistering pace as expected from the pre-match hype. After all, in only their last match, both the teams had played a super-attacking brand of soccer. And contrary to what many experts said, Mario Balotelli did find a place in the starting line up ahead of De Natale. Balotelli started off with a 3rd minute shot at the goal. On the other hand, Croatia hoping for a quick start saw Mandzukic concedes a free kick for a foul on Chiellini

Croatia’s most capped player and captain Srna made a few set piece attacks, one of which ended with a good Buffon save, and the subsequent counter-attack by Italy saw Cassano race into the Croatia box and nearly score, but for a timely tackle by Gordon Schildenfeld. Balotelli’s effort paid off when he earned a free kick in the 39th minute, and then there was that moment of magic as Pirlo’s free kick swerved over the defense into the goal. Italy 1-0 Croatia, and that’s how the first half ended

Pirlo: The Magic Moment

The second half began with a flurry of passes, attacks and shots on goal. Within the first 10 minutes, Thiego Motta received the first yellow card and was promptly substituted. De Natale, as expected, replaced Balotelli, and immediately the results showed, but for Croatia as Mandžukic equalized!! Strangely, after that, neither side seemed to push on for a result nor the game never rose to great heights after that, barring a thunderous volley by Kranjcar who replaced Super Mario deep into injury time which was well saved by Buffon

Mandzukic after the equaliser

The result leaves the group interestingly poised, with Spain carving out a victory vs Ireland, any of the three – Croatia, Italy and Spain can make the cut. But Italy will have to hope for a result in the Croatia vs Spain game and win vs. Ireland to progress. Or else, win really big vs the Irish and proceed on goal difference

Tactical Highlights

Cesare Prandelli stuck with the 3-5-2 and for the first 45 minutes it worked without too many hitches. Balotelli and Cassini ran hard and split the defense well -Balotteli earned the free kick that saw Italy take the lead. On the other hand, Bilic’s men lined up almost as a 4-1-3-2. It was expected Croatia would use the flanks to attack, and though in the first half they didn’t do so freely, in the second half with Modric, Mandzukic and Nikica Jelavic pressed higher up the pitch. Srna gave Giaccherini a tough time on the right and it was Ivan Strinic’s cross from the left that led to the goal. Thus Croatia had the better of the exchanges in the second half


Line-Ups

Italy: Buffon, Chiellini, De Rossi, Bonucci, Giaccherini, Marchisio, Pirlo, Thiago Motta, Maggio, Cassano, Balotelli. Substitutes: De Sanctis, Sirigu, Ogbonna, Balzaretti, Abate, Di Natale, Barzagli, Borini, Montolivo, Giovinco, Diamanti, Nocerino.

Croatia: Pletikosa, Srna, Corluka, Schildenfeld, Strinic, Rakitic, Vukojevic, Modric, Perisic, Mandzukic, Jelavic. Substitutes: Kelava, Subasic, Simunic, Buljat, Pranjic, Badelj, Versaljko, Dujmovic, Kalinic, Kranjcar, Vida, Eduardo.

Referee: H. Webb (England).  Assitant Referees: M. Mullarkey (England), P. Kirkup (UK). Fourth Official: P. Kralovec (Czech Republic)

Quotes

“Of course you are a bit bitter because when a side plays football, creates a lot of goalscoring chances, they need to put a game to bed, to kill off the game”. – Prandelli denied being angry with the result

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“All I will say is that I’m very optimistic for the next match. I’m really satisfied we’ve four points from the two games. It could be even better but four points is optimal, realistic and now we have a real chance to go through” – Bilic declined to look ahead to the next game with Spain

Moment of Truth for Spain and Italy

Match Facts

Group C: Spain vs Italy

Friday, 10 June 2012

1800 (local time); 1200(EST); 2130(IST)

PGE Arena Gdansk

The second group of death kicks off with a match that is as poignant for the teams as it is for the European championships.  The last two world cup winners go head to head in the opening match of Group C and expect a bruising affair.

The current world and European winners are overwhelming favourites, not having lost to any European nation in any competitive match since the 2006 world cup. But their start to world and European domination actually started against the same opposition in a quarter final in 2008 Euros. That match ended in tiebreaker and a win, especially in a tiebreaker put the Spanish team on its path of world domination. Trophies have come in and the play has been highly appreciated too. With a 100% record in the qualifying for the Euros, Spain are favourites for the tournament along with Germany.  However not all is well with the team. Injury has robbed the team of Carlos Puyol and David Villa. The tensions among the players from the two big clubs have come out in the open. Xavi has come out to say “We’ve always been respectful, but they haven’t been so gracious. It’s a personal feeling.” In older days Puyol was one of the players to cement those relations. And now with his absence, not only does Vicente del Bosque have to to do that peace-keeping corps work himself, he also has to forge a central defensive partnership of Real’s Sergio Ramos and Barcelona’s Gerard Pique. The rest of the team are easily chosen though if Fernando Torres starts as the forward, it would be more to do with his name than actual form. Fernando Llorente would have been a more worthy starter.

Which one of them will prove more influential

If anything that could have gone wrong in the preparation of a tournament, then that has gone wrong for Italy. Desperate to forge a new team out of the disaster of 2010 World Cup, manager Cesare Prandelli couldn’t really have bargained for the sort of luck with injury, form, discipline and scandal all hitting at the same time. With another betting scandal rampaging the peninsula and this time players too part of it, the team has been thrust right back to 2006 world cup mode – back against the wall with only themselves for company. If such a situation can foster trust and belief in each other, like Lippi’s 2006 world cup squad did, is the question. Andrea Pirlo is fit and should take the field and the onus is on him to show to the world, why he and not Xavi, is the best in that deep-lying playmaker role.

Form Guide

Spain has been its rampant self winning all its matches in the qualifying scoring 26 goals in 8 matches. They have not lost in 2012 and would expect to keep their form running.

Italy has not won in 2012 yet but they did beat Spain in a friendly when they last met them last year. Italy too qualified in style conceding only 2 goals (record lowest) throughout. They were absolutely thrashed though in the last friendly against Russia and Prandelli would have had a nice view of his defensive ails. One hopes that he has managed to iron them out in time for the opener.

Spain: WWWW

Italy: WWLLL

Teams & Formations

Spain would play in the familiar 4-3-3 that Barcelona play though the effectiveness of Torres as the central forward may be questioned and Llorente, who had a great season with Athletic Bilbao is a credible alternative.

Spain (4-3-3): Iker Casillas; Alvaro Arbeloa, Sergio Ramos, Gerard Piqué, Jordi Alba; Xavi Hernandez, Sergio Busquets, Xabi Alonso; David Silva, Fernando Torres, Andrés Iniesta

Manager: Vicente del Bosque

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There has been quite a lot of discussion of whether to play a 4 man or a 3 man defense and the absence of Andrea Barzagli due to injury, robs Prandelli of putting in a defense which served the Serie A champions Juventus so very well. Daniele de Rossi, who did try out as a ball-playing central defender for Roma might be the replacement. However Italy will bank a lot on Spain not playing to their full potential in the very first match and wish Andrea Pirlo can pull the strings just like he did for Juventus all season. The forward line is a lottery too. Antonio Cassano’s fitness is questionable having only come back late in the season from his heart ailment. Mario Balotelli is equally probable to do the daftest thing in the field as he is to score a goal.

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

Manager: Cesare Prandelli

Referee: Viktor Kassai (Hungary)

Quotes

“I have decided on my team but the players will not be informed until the morning of the game.”

Vincent Del Bosque keeps his team a secret.

“We have tried many options but this is something we often do. If De Rossi has to play in that position(defence) it won’t be only as a defender but also as a defensive midfielder.”

Cesare Prandelli on possible tactical makeup.

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.