Friday, June 03, 2016

The Greatest Euro Matches: Spain-Italy (2012)

When the tournament started in Poland and Ukraine, there was no doubt that Spain were the huge favourites. They had won the European Championship of 2008 and the World Cup in 2010, and were favourites to make history by taking their third major title in a row.
With a base from FC Barcelona, complemented by some of the strongest players from Real Madrid, Spain's style of retaining the ball through passing (inspired from FC Barcelona) was proving highly efficient, although critics did point out repeatedly that it was boring football that did not seek goal enough (in 2010 they became world champions scoring the least goals of all time). The team largely consisted of players from the two big clubs in Spain: Iker Casillas was the captain on goal, behind his Real Madrid teammates Sergio Ramos, Raul Albiol and Alvaro Arbeloa, as well as Barcelona's Gerard Pique. Perhaps the best midfield in the world included a luxury choice of players such as FC Barcelona's Andres Iniesta, Xavi, Cesc Fabregas, Sergio Busquets, Real Madrid's Xabi Alonso, Manchester City's David Silva, and Arsenal's Santi Cazorla. Up front was surely Spain's least strong link, with Barcelona's Pedro Rodriguez, Chelsea's Fernando Torres and Sevilla's Alvaro Negredo all having been tried by coach Vicente de Bosque, but with him often preferring to play without a striker at all.
Spain had been awesome in qualification with eight victories in as many matches and scoring 26 goals. In the first round they had opened with 1-1 against Italy before defeating Ireland and Croatia to take first spot in the group. A poor French side had been dispatched with 2-0 in the quarterfinals and in the semifinal Spain defeated Portugal on penalties after a long 0-0 match. With only one goal scored against them and only six goals, Spain seemed to be confirming their defensive credential before they were to face Italy in the final.
Italy had for many years been a hindrance for Spain's advances, but in 2008 this had changed when Spain finally had defeated them after penalty kicks in the quarterfinal and gone to win the final (until then it had been 88 years since Spain had defeated Italy in a competitive match). Since then Italy had changed a lot under coach Cesare Prandelli, who was implementing a more offensive style than Italy had normally been used to. In qualification they had overwhelmingly won their group and had started the tournament well with 1-1 against Spain. They then tied Croatia 1-1, but a 2-0 win over Ireland put them in the quarterfinals where they defeated England on penalty kicks, and in the semifinals they defeated the German favourites 1-2.
The captain of the side was the veteran Juventus goalkeeper Gianluca Bufon. The team was otherwise built around Juventus midfield general Andrea Pirlo, who had at the time been the best player of the tournament, barely failing any of his many passes. Additional weight was given to the midfield by Paris St. Germain's Thiago Mota, Juventus' Claudio Marchisio, Fiorentina's Ricardo Montolivo or Roma's Daniele de Rossi. The team also had some quality strikers with Udinese's Antonio Di Natale and AC Milan's Antonio Cassano, as well as Manchester City's controversial Mario Balotelli.
In spite of it all it was somewhat surprising to see Italy in the final. They had fought hard, and it seemed like a bizarro world when Italy were not favourites against a defensive Spanish side. Coach Vicente de Bosque again started the match without an outright striker, instead playing the midfielder Cesc Fabregas as a type of striker.
Spain took the lead early on with a goal that bore the Barcelona trademark: after a long spell of possession Xavi made a perfect deep pass to Cesc Fabregas, who ran to the backline and passed the ball backwards where it hit David Silva in an awkward header, but making it 1-0 for Spain. Interestingly, David Silva was the only player in the starting lineup who was not from Barcelona or Real Madrid.
More bad luck struck Italy when they were forced to subsitute the experienced Juventus defender Giorgio Chiellini due to an injury. In spite of this Italy tried to fight back, but Spain's domination was proven yet again when FC Barcelona's Jordi Alba made it 2-0 on a goal that looked very easy: Iker Casillas kicked out the ball to the left side where Jordi Alba passed it to Xavi, and then Alba himself rushed forward to receive a deep pass from Xavi on the right side of the offside trap. Alba's composed finish went past Bufon.
It was 2-0 at halftime and it barely looked like Italy had a chance. Prandelli replaced Antonio Cassano with Antonio di Natale, and soon after the start of the second half also put in Thiago Mota for Ricardo Montolivo, but after only a few minutes he had to be carried off on a stretcher. With all substitutions done, Italy had to play with only ten men for half an hour, and it was clear that all hope was gone by then.
Six minutes to the end of the match Xavi took the ball from Andrea Pirlo in midfield, perhaps symbolizing that Pirlo had been in his shadow the entire match. Xavi immediately found Fernando Torres with a deep pass and the Chelsea striker scored as he had done in the European championship final four years ago.
It almost seemed a repeat three minutes later when Xavi again found Fernando Torres with a deep pass, but this time Torres passed the ball to his Chelsea teammate Juan Mata as Bufon was coming towards him. Mata had just come on for Andres Iniesta and hammered the ball into an open goal.
The humiliation of Italy was total, and in spite of only a few minutes left one could see goalkeeper Casillas tell his players not to score more goals. In this match the Spaniards almost doubled their tally of goals in the tournament. It was the biggest victory in the history of European Championship history and Spain had become the first European team to win three major tournaments in a row with the 2008 Euro, the 2010 World Cup, and this. They were undoubtedly the best team in the world.

Kiev, July 1st 2012 Olympic Stadium 
Attendance: 63,170 
Referee: Pedro Proenca (Portugal) 

Spain-Italy 4-0 

Spain: Iker Casillas (c); Alvaro Arbeloa, Gerard Pique, Sergio Ramos, Jordi Alba, Xavi, Sergio Busquets, Xabi Alonso, Cesc Fabregas (Fernando Torres, 75), David Silva (Pedro, 59), Andres Iniesta (Juan Mata, 87). Coach: Vicente del Bosque 
 Italy: Gianluca Bufon (c); Ignazio Abate, Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci, Giorgio Chiellini (Federico Balzaretti, 21), Andrea Pirlo, Claudio Marchisio, Ricardo Montolivo (Thiago Mota, 57), Daniele de Rossi, Mario Balotelli, Antonio Cassano (Antonio di Natale, 46)

1-0 David Silva (14) 
2-0 Jordi Alba (41) 
3-0 Fernando Torres (84) 
4-0 Juan Mata (88)

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