Xavi Hernandez, one of the best midfielders of all time retired from International football earlier this week. While his achievements, both for the club and country are unprecedented, Xavi has had his critics. Saumyadip Das looks back at his playing days with Goalden Times.
Xavi Hernandez Creus, the midfield maestro decided to call it a day from international football arena on 5th August 2014 after 133 caps to his name. He was undoubtedly one of the finest midfielders of his generation. A key player in the history-making squad of FC Barcelona as well as Spain, he won virtually everything which was there to be won – the only blip could be the Confederations Cup which Spain lost to Brazil in the 2013 final. He does not have a big athletic body – he is short, he does not appear very strong, but he did have an eye for those delightful passes. And that was accompanied by tremendous consistency. In Barcelona, he used to run the show as the bandmaster in an orchestra. He was a very hard-working midfielder who always found space –almost effortlessly – to dictate the game.
Honestly, Xavi’s game was never very much eye-catching – it had no long-runs, no great dribbling, nothing much flashy like others greats of his generation. Some say that he could not even tackle. He was criticized on many occasions, mockedwith the nickname“Windshield Wiper” –that all he ever did was pass sideways. On 13thJanuary 2009, The Daily Mail even went ahead with an article on that year’s Ballon d’Or shortlists having the headline “The best players of the world (and Xavi).” Probably they forgot the fact that Xavi used to run more than anyone else on the field. He used to create more chances than anyone else on the field. He looked fitter and fresher than anyone else on the field. His game was predictable, but he was deadly efficient at that. Playing a miss-pass is considered the biggest sin in la masia, the FC Barcelona academy Xavi joined at the age of 11. His ex-team mate and ex-Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola has aptly described Xavi’s playing philosophy: “I get the ball, I give the ball, I get the ball, I give the ball”. So, it was quite evident that he would carry on making short pass after short pass and all of a sudden he would made a telling pass to kick start a move which would eventually finish at the back of the net. Xavi’s extraordinary vision, supreme technical skill to pass relentlessly with pinpointed accuracy and unbelievable ball control allowed him to keep possession of the ball for eternity and boss the gameplay. Perhaps, the best explanation of Xavi’s game came from the man himself, in a widelylauded interview with Sid Lowe, in The Guardian: “That’s what I do: look for spaces. All day. I’m always looking. All day, all day. [Xavi starts gesturing as if he is looking around, swinging his head]. Here? No. There? No. People who haven’t played don’t always realize how hard that is. Space, space, space. It’s like being on the PlayStation. I think shit, the defender’s here, play it there. I see the space and pass. That’s what I do.”
Xavi has also been a very humble person, a role model for younger players. In an interview, when asked if Paul Scholes can be called as the English Xavi, he replied-“Paul Scholes! A role model. For me – and I really mean this – he’s the best central midfielder I’ve seen in the last 15, 20 years. I’ve spoken to Xabi Alonso about him. He’s spectacular, he has it all: the last pass, goals, he’s strong, he doesn’t lose the ball, vision. Players love him”.
Xavi will be remembered as a dedicated and loyal footballer – a trait so rare in these days. He joined Barcelona senior team in 1998, and remained with them following the tough times after their La Liga win in 1999. Barcelona remained trophyless for next five seasons, they struggled during that era of Joan Gaspart and were on the verge of bankruptcy. Xavi could have easily left Camp Nou but he did not. He chose to remain at the club, brought the honours for the club making the deep lying playmaker role his own and went on to become the most capped player in the history of the club with more than 700 appearances (and still counting!!!). His record as a player is impeccable. With FC Barcelona, he won seven La Liga titles, two Copa Del Rey, six Supercopa, three UEFA Champions League, two UEFA Super Cup and two FIFA Club World Cup honours. And with Spain, he won back to back UEFA EuropeanFootball Championships in 2008 & 2012, sandwiched by their only World Cup trophy in 2010, an Olympic Silver medal in 2000 and a U-20 World Cup in 1999.
But what he did in those matches? Did he just pass the ball sideways as the critics mentioned? The answer is an emphatic No. He was the “The Puppet Master”, as he is fondly known to the whole world. In his competitive debut on 18thAugust 1998 in the Super Cup final, he scored against RCD Mallorca. He then made his debut in La Liga against Valencia CF on 3rd October 1998 in a 3–1 win. Xavi continued to appear for both the reserve (Barcelona B) and the senior teams and opened his account for Barcelona FC in the 1–0 victory over Real Valladolid when Barcelona were placed 10th in the league standings.He kept on impressing and soon became a key member of Louis van Gaal’s title-winning team that year. Xavi finished his debut season with26 matches La Liga title and La Liga Breakthrough Player of the Year award.
The journey continued and Xavi became an important part of a legendary Barcelona team where he chipped in with vital goals and assisted for more than 50 different teammates. He also played a crucial role in Spain’s Euro 2008 triumph under Luis Aragones. He scored the opener in the semi final against Russia and in the final he assisted Fernando Torres for the only goal to clinch the title for Spain aftera gap of 44 years. He was named the player of the tournament. “We have chosen Xavi because he epitomizes the Spanish style of play. He was influential in the whole possession, passing and penetrating kind of game that Spain played,” said Andy Roxburgh, head of UEFA’s technical committee.
“We have chosen Xavi because he epitomizes the Spanish style of play. He was influential in the whole possession, passing and penetrating kind of game that Spain played,”
In 2009 Copa del Rey final, against Athletic Bilbao, he scored with a free kick en route a 4-1 win. That season in La Liga, among many games, one of the most significant was the 6–2 El Clásicovictory over Real Madrid on 2nd May, 2009 where he assisted for four of those goals. Xavithen helped Barcelona to win the 2009 Champions League Final against Manchester United2–0 where he crossed for the second goal to Lionel Messi and was judged the Man of the match. Prior to the match, Manchester United’s then manager Sir Alex Ferguson had feared that it is very difficult to mark him and blank out his game – and Xavi proved him right. In the same season Xavi was the highest assisting player with 20 assists in La Liga. He was also had most assists in the UEFA Champions League with seven assists.
In the 2009–10 season,Xavi again topped the assists chart and provided both the assists in Barcelona’s 2–0 win over Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu. Barcelona won the league title with a record 99 points and Xavi was voted the second best player of the team. On 3rdJune, 2010, the Madrid based newspaper Marca announced Xavias the third best player in the league behind Messi and Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo.in the annual Trofeo Alfredo di Stéfano award. On 29th November, 2009, he scored his third goal again against Real Madrid in a 5–0 victory at Camp Nou which is arguably the Best performance in the history of Football. On 18th December,2009, in the 2011 FIFA Club World Cup Final in Yokohama, Japan, Barcelona won 4-0 against Santos where Xavi scored a goal and provided with an assist for Messi.
In 2010 FIFA World Cup, he ran over 80 kilometer, more than anyone else. To give it a more tangible perspective, he back heeled to David Villa for the only goal in the round of 16 match against Portugal. Xavi once again made an assist to Puyol via a corner for the only goal in the semi-final match against Germany. It was not a surprise to anyone when Xavi was selected in the 2010 World Cup All-star Team.
In 2011/12 season Xavi scored 10 goals in the league and two more in the title winning run of Copa Del Rey. Later that year, in 2012 Euro, he created record by having the most number of passes(136,127 were succesful) in a group match against Ireland, surpassing Ronald Koeman’s record of 117 passes in a single game.In the final against Italy, Xavi assisted twice – for Jordi Alba and Torres – and become the only player till date to have assists in two different Euro finals. Once again, he was part of the all-star team.
As far as individual honours are concerned, Xavi won the World Soccer Player of the Year award in 2010. Xavi has also received five Ballon d’Or nominations, and to his ill fortune missed out as he was up against two of the most lethal goal scorers of all time – Messi and Ronaldo. In fact, Messi has eclipsed Xavi for the top honours on the back of countless goals he has scored from Xavi’s direct contribution. It is no coincidence that he has been awarded the IFFHS World’s Best Playmaker award for four successive years from 2008 to 2011. He has been a part of UEFA Team of the Year for five consecutive years from 2008 to 2012), and FIFA World XI for six straight occasions from 2008 to 2013. Xavi is also the most successful player in the Spanish football history with more than 25 trophies. Among other awards and accolades, he has been decorated with Spanish Sportsman of the Year in 2009, Gold Medal of the Royal Order of Sporting Merit in 2010 and Prince of Asturias Award for Sports in 2010 and 2012).
Xavi formed a deadly partnership with his midfield partner – both at the club and national level – and close friend Andres Iniesta –Xaviesta. Once Rivelinho, member of Brazil’s 1970 World Cup winning squad said: “Xavi and Iniesta think fast and that gives their teams an advantage. They pass and pass and pass, and suddenly pick out spaces for the forwards with great precision. They’re always doing something different. The last player I saw play with that intelligence was Zidane. They know what they are going to do before the ball gets to their feet. And that’s like gold in football”. He assisted many of the goals scored by Lionel Messi in his route to become Best Player in the World.
No doubt, Xavi Hernandez is one of the greatest midfielders of all time and possibly the best central midfielder of his generation. He has been loyal to his childhood club and one can say he has Barca DNA. Recently he thought about leaving the club,but newly appointed manager Luis Enrique convinced him that the team needs his experience and handed him thecaptain’s armband. His national team coach Vincente Del Bosque always regarded him as a “unique” player and he will have a tough time finding a replacement for Xavi. Just like old wine, he became better and better as he was approaching the age of 30 and beyond. He never had a flamboyant personality which could be used for worldwide brand building. He did not have a strong frame or athletic features to boss the game either through muscle power or agility. And he was aware of that: “I’d love to be faster. Physically I’m limited, but I’ve survived by using my head”. With his exit from international football, we shall surely miss one of the best passers of all time. May be it will help him to extend his playing days and he would continue to mesmerize us at club level.
Europe’s Best XI for 2011-2012 Season
Best XI is a compilation of interesting events or snippets from the football world across different locations that we share with you. Best XI will seek to be about topics you are interested in and want explored. You may mail your requests to email@example.com
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 32ndLa 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.
Step On To Greatness: Euro Final Preview
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.
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
Moment of Truth for Spain and Italy
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.
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.
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.
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)
“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.
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.