Balls out Sunday: Euro finals Italy v. Spain 

click to enlarge Young baller plays on an Italian beach. - COURTESY OF RICKYDAVID VIA FLICKR CREATIVE COMMONS
  • Young baller plays on an Italian beach.
  • Courtesy of RickyDavid via Flickr Creative Commons

The Semi-finals of the European Championships are over – the final match is set!


These teams were actually together in Group C early in the tournament, known as the "Group of Debt" thanks to Spain's and Ireland's financial woes. They played to a cagey but fascinating 1-1 draw in the opening match of the tournament for both teams. If that match is a template of what the final will be, then be prepared for the likelihood of another penalty shootout. The teams are evenly matched — not in formation, tactics, or player types, but in talent and ability.

On paper, the Spaniards appear stronger, thanks to the presence in their team of so many World Cup and European trophy-winners. Only three players remain from the 2006 World Cup-winning Italian team. The reputations of Spanish players Xavi, Iniesta and others is also extremely high, several of them having been consistently listed among the world's best in recent years; whereas the reputation of the entire Italian football community is threatened by investigations into match-fixing allegations at some Italian clubs.

In reality, the Italians are certainly a match for the Spaniards. They certainly do not fear Spain, and nor should they, based on their current form. Nor will Spain be inclined to abandon its own unique style in the face of the implacable Italians. So how will the final match play out?

I think the onus to win or draw lies with Italy. Perennially talented, they appear especially inspired at this tournament, perhaps thanks to their coach, former club coach Cesare Prandelli. I've imagined locker-room speeches he seems to have given to his charges: You are faster than the other team, use your speed to get to loose balls first; you are tougher than the other team, use that toughness to win the ball away from them; you are more intelligent than the other team, use your wits to outsmart them; and take your chances! They've obviously bought into these philosophies and, thanks to their talent and to superb team selection by Prandelli, have shown their true worth in reaching the final. But have they peaked too soon?

The Spanish seem more laid-back than usual. It appears that the players are simply expecting their style to win the match, but with none of their typical urgency. There is the sense that they are waiting for something to happen, instead of working hard enough to actually do it. It feels like they're on auto-pilot, which is why I believe the initiative rests with Italy. If Italy maintains the momentum from the Germany match, they will win the match. I don't think Spain will win from open play — they are too uncertain and confused right now to do anything but play for a draw. Italy might win from open play but just as likely could win or lose in a penalty shootout.

It's a tough one to call, but here goes: Italy 2-1 Spain

Watch the final at 2:30 p.m. Sunday on ESPN, ESPNDeportes, and ESPN3 (online) to find out who will become the 2012 European Champions.

click to enlarge Spain's "Xavi" (Xavier Hernández i Creus) - COURTESY OF DR. GRAY VIA FLICKR CREATIVE COMMONS
  • Spain's "Xavi" (Xavier Hernández i Creus)
  • Courtesy of Dr. Gray via Flickr Creative Commons

Now for all you hard-core strategists, let's review the penultimate matches that gave us Sunday's Spain-Italy final.

Spain 0-0 Portugal, Spain wins 4-2 on penalties

Prediction: Spain 3-1 Portugal

It seemed almost impossible to conceive of the possibility that Spain would lose this match; but it almost happened. Playing a disciplined and surprisingly aggressive match against the normally dominant Spaniards, Portugal came close to stealing this match. Not necessarily in open play — they held the ball well and threatened to get around and over Spain's defensive wall, but never really came close to scoring. Still, Portugal took the match to extra time.

Spain's wizened old coach Vicente del Bosque sprang a huge surprise by selecting Alvaro Negredo in the striker role in a 4-5-1 formation. In bypassing both "El Nino" Fernando Torres and Basque star Fernando Llorente, del Bosque made a curious decision that smacked of uncertainty. Why start Negredo for the first time in the tournament, in the semi-finals of all times? Only the coach knows the answer to that question, but regardless, the result was a startling lack of cohesion and rhythm among Spain's attackers. Negredo seemed confused about where and how to play, and this in turn made Spain's midfield tricksters Silva, Xavi and Iniesta hesitate more than usual when in possession. Negredo was relieved of his duties in the 54th minute, coming out for midfielder Cesc Fabregas.

The entry into the match of Fabregas changed Spain's formation to 4-6-0, a shape lacking a true forward. Though it seems counter-intuitive to play with no direct attacking focal point, Spain has proved it can succeed. Fabregas and the other quick, clever midfielders will hover just outside of the opponent's penalty box, penning the other team into a tight defensive shell. They will pass and move into scoring positions constantly, swapping places, drawing defenders out of position, and hoping to find moments when the one who ends up with the ball in front of goal can shoot unopposed. When they dominate possession, this system can be mesmerizing to watch — short passes that make the penalty area look like a pinball machine, but all the while getting Spain closer to scoring.

In this match, that scenario never really quite played out. Towards the end of the match and into extra time, when Portugal clearly relaxed and conceded possession to the Spaniards quite easily, a goal threatened to come. The fact that it did not was perhaps only fair to the Portuguese, who played toe-to-toe with mighty Spain for most of the full 90 minutes.

Conventional wisdom seemed to hold that Portugal's only chance to win would be from lightning counter-attacks. The threat of uber-scorer Cristiano Ronaldo streaking away with the ball towards the Spain goal would have to be enough to keep Spain from committing overwhelming numbers to attack. But the Portuguese held their own against their Iberian neighbors. The match was absorbing, if not quite as exciting as one would have hoped.

The extra-time period was anti-climactic. The march to a penalty shootout seemed inevitable, though Spain tried somewhat half-heartedly to score. In theory, Spain had reason to fear penalties. Their dominance towards the end would tangibly count for nothing in the shootout. The tired Portuguese would no longer have to worry about a single Spanish goal ending their tournament. In the penalty shootout, odds of either team winning are 50-50. The individual brilliance of some players is cancelled out each time a goalkeeper guesses the right way to dive for the save. There is, however, still a degree of strategy involved in planning the shootout — namely the order in which players will take their shots. In this area would Portugal created its own demise.

Players from each team missed the first penalty kicks. The shootout progressed with successful spot kicks until Portugal's defender Bruno Alves, with Portugal trailing 3-2, clanged his shot against the crossbar — a miss. Spain's Fabregas only had to convert his shot for Spain to win the contest (it would be Spain's fourth successful penalty in the first five, whereas the most Portugal could get was 3). Fabregas banged the shot into the goal off of the post, and Spain celebrated. Towards midfield, Cristiano Ronaldo walked around in a daze, shaking his head, no doubt amazed that he had not even taken a penalty kick. How did Portugal's leading scorer, their talisman, their leader and captain NOT get the chance to win the shootout for his team? Maybe Portugal's coach sabotaged his team's golden opportunity. But Spain is a deserving finalist all the same.

click to enlarge Mario Balotelli, with a little extra fantasy flair added here by Pix Jockey, via Flickr Creative Commons
  • Mario Balotelli, with a little extra fantasy flair added here by Pix Jockey, via Flickr Creative Commons

Italy 2-1 Germany

Prediction: Germany 2-1 Italy

Much was expected of Germany in this tournament. Many observers, this author included, believed that their time had come. Germany's blend of youth and experience and speed and power would carry them to their first major title since 1996's European Championship. Their run through this tournament, while not rampantly dominant, seemed to support these notions. They had not quite reached their maximum potential while nevertheless easing into the semi-finals. Surely the offensively challenged Italians could not derail the German machine.

Now, in the aftermath of a pulsating 2-1 Italy victory, the flaws in the German master plan are plain. Germany had won 15 competitive matches in a row before this match. That didn't include friendlies, only matches that meant something, such as those they had to play to qualify for this tournament along with the first four they won this month. During that run, there was some experimentation with personnel and formations, but they settled on a 4-5-1 shape early on. The 4-5-1 only uses one actual forward, but wing players on both sides operate in forward positions as well, supplying crosses to the striker in the center. If an opponent tries to stifle the wings, the center area becomes more vulnerable. If the defense clogs the middle and forces the ball out wide, the wingers can approach the goal from the sides. The 4-5-1 works best in counter-attacks, making the system essentially defensive in nature.

click to enlarge 4-5-1 formation and 4-4-2 formation, respectively - WIKIPEDIA
  • 4-5-1 formation and 4-4-2 formation, respectively
  • Wikipedia

The vulnerability of the 4-5-1 lies in the midfield. In a more conventional (and offensively-oriented) 4-4-2 formation, an opponent's midfield four will actually outnumber the 4-5-1's midfield three – remember, two of the five are on the wings. If they get drawn into the middle to help win possession of the ball against a quality opponent, then wing play is diminished. That's what happened against Italy. The Italians were the best opponent the Germans had faced in a long time — perhaps since the World Cup loss to Spain in 2010. Their midfield dominance over the Germans, who had become accustomed to bossing possession over the weaker teams they had vanquished, wrecked the German gameplan. Starved of possession for long periods, the Germans relied too much upon their midfield maestro Mesut Ozil, who was pursued relentlessly by Italian midfielders and defenders.

But the 4-5-1 formation is not the only culprit for the fall of Germany at this tournament.

Coach Joachim Loew's loyalty to and reliance upon the likes of Lukas Podolski and Miroslav Klose, old-timers compared to many of the team's young guns, was misguided at best. Podolski in particular was a misstep — his lack of service from the left wing throughout the tournament was evident, but didn't hurt the team before today, when chances were at a premium. My admiration of this German team was based in part upon the excitement of seeing Schurrle, Gotze, Reus and Kroos play alongside Ozil; but from their first teamsheet, Germany made clear it would be a gradual transition to the new generation, and this probably cost them against a team that was, in retrospect, superior today in selecting their starting 11.

Of course, we can take nothing at all away from the Italians in the post-mortem of the German team's failure to progress. They were quick and unpredictable, as I hoped they would be, and worked hard for one another to win the ball and share it around. Their wise midfield stalwart Pirlo helped dictate play, but the young Italian attackers determined the match. Wild-child Mario Balotelli took the spotlight with two first-half goals. Wild-child #2 Antonio Cassano provided the assists for those goals. Attacking midfielder Montilivo expertly connected Pirlo to Cassano and Balotelli. The entire team executed their own game plan — to stifle German possession and use speed of both thought and action to get around/behind their defense — perfectly. The late-game penalty they conceded on a somewhat harsh handball call was merely coincidental. Italy's win was no fluke, and earns them the possibility of becoming European champions for the first time since 1968.


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