Here’s the first article from contributor Greg Visone.
Historically speaking, this is probably the best Euro Final matchup we could’ve asked for. This is only the fourth time that the Final of the European Championship is a rematch between teams that met earlier in the competition (the other three: Soviet Union v The Netherlands in Euro 88, Czech Republic v Germany in Euro 96 & Portugal v Greece in Euro 2004). There is, however, a lot more history to Spain-Italy than the 1-1 draw we saw earlier this month in Group C action.
Spain and Italy have played each other thirty times, with Italy having a marginally better overall record, boasting a 10-12-8 record (win-draw-loss) against La Roja. The record, however, does not show the whole story. These two countries have played each other five times in major competitions. At the 1934 World Cup, hosts Italy defeated Spain 1-0 in their quarterfinal replay en route to winning their first ever World Cup.
The two teams would not play each other in a major tournament for nearly fifty years, until they were drawn together in Group B at Euro 1980, another tournament hosted by the Italians. They drew 0-0 in their first group stage match, with Italy finishing second in the group and Spain last. Italy went on to finish fourth in the competition.
At Euro 88, Italy defeated Spain 1-0 in their Group A match. Much like Euro 1980, Italy would advance from the group stage at the expense of Spain. Italy also went on to defeat Spain 2-1 in their 1994 World Cup quarterfinal match, with Italy’s Roberto Baggio winning it in the 88th minute for the Italians at Foxboro. Italy would go on to lose the World Cup Final on penalties against Brazil, with star man Roberto Baggio missing the ultimate penalty at the Rose Bowl.
Spain would finally get a leg-up in this rivalry with a win over the Italians at Euro 2008, when they won their quarterfinal matchup on penalties. Spain would go on to win the tournament, hoisting their first major trophy since they won Euro 1964 on home soil.
Now that we have the history of this matchup out of the way, we can finally focus on how the two teams might focus tactically against each other in the Final.
Spanish coach Vincente Del Bosque isn’t going to change his tactics or lineup just because it’s the Final. The thing about this Spain side that I love is that they will not deviate from their style of play for any opponent. They will go into this match with their thought process being “We are Spain, we’re gonna pass you to death, and eventually pass it right into the net. You know what we’re gonna do, now try and stop it.” That is the mindset of a side that’s won the last two major tournaments they’ve competed in (as much as I’d love to count the Confederations Cup, I won’t do it because it’d be wrong).
For the most part, Spain’s lineup will be a formality: Casillas in goal, with Pique, Sergio Ramos, Arbeloa, and Alba at the back four; Busquets, Xavi, Alonso, Iniesta, David Silva are going to play straight across the midfield. What will be interesting to see is whether or not Spain will have a striker in the starting XI—the first time Spain and Italy faced each other, Spain had midfield maestro Cesc Fábregas line up alongside the other five midfielders, leaving high-quality strikers Fernando “Judas” Torres, Fernando Llorente, and Álvaro Negredo on the bench. This “False 9” formation is what AC Roma invented with Francesco Totti in Fabregas’s role. More recently, Barcelona has employed with a False 9 with Messi up front.
Naturally, Spain dominated possession and passed Italy to death, with their goal coming from a wonderful build-up, as Xavi found Iniesta, who found Silva right outside the box, who in turn put in a perfect through-ball for Fabregas, who passed it right into the back of the net past Gigi Buffon to equalize.
The big problem with their no striker formation was their lack of possession in the final third. They gave the ball away very easily, mostly because each of the six midfielders looked for someone else to finish off the chances. In short: Fabregas is no Totti and certainly no Messi. When striker Fernando Torres came on, his presence enabled them to keep possession more in the final third and made them look more likely to score. He created channels between the center-backs—his movement always had to be marked 1v1, allowing Spain to more effectively overload the final third. Torres’s finishing was poor, however, with him snatching at chances in a very similar fashion to what we’ve seen from him at Chelsea the last year and a half. Despite Torres’s toothless finishing, Spain has won their two games with him starting by a combined score of 5-0. Without him? 3-1 on aggregate.
Del Bosque hasn’t started Torres in the knockout stage, so don’t expect any changes. Either Negredo or Fabregas will occupy that False 9 role. Spain have enough quality midfielders to be able to play the way they’d like to in this Final. Yes, they’ll have to bring on a striker eventually, but they’re going play very cautious and try to put themselves in a position to win the last half-hour of the match. They’re going to focus on keeping possession the way that they have the last half-decade. It’s what got them to this date with history. They’re looking to become the first country to win three consecutive major tournaments, and they’re one win away from doing just that. Now is no time to deviate from their strategy.
While Italy has yet to go behind at any stage, they’ve not been very convincing overall. They’ve done just enough at every stage to get through, which, at the end of the day, is all that really matters. They started off the tournament with two draws against Spain and Croatia, which had them needing to defeat Ireland and have Spain defeat Croatia for them to go through, in addition to a bunch of whacky scenarios because of the Euro 2012 Group Stage tiebreakers being very self-contradictory (As a side note, I’d like to make the following request to UEFA: for Euro 2016 in France, please just use goal difference to decide tie-breakers. As much as I loved the chaos you caused, it was just too confusing. I mean, for once, FIFA actually has done something better than you. Think about that). They took the lead early against Ireland, went on to win 2-0, and, thanks to some great goalkeeping by Iker Casillas, got the 1-0 Spain win they needed to advance to the knockout stages.
Italy would not be here if it wasn’t for Spain defeating Croatia. Imagine how Spain would feel if they lost tomorrow. It would have them wishing they’d come to that rumored “gentleman’s agreement” with Croatia to draw 2-2 and assure each side went through and knocked Italy out.
As far as performances have been concerned, Andrea Pirlo, star midfield maestro for Serie A Champions Juventus, has led the Italians from day one. His through-ball to super-sub Antonio Di Natale gave Italy the lead against Spain the first time they met in this tournament (which I’ve referenced far too often in so far in this piece). He then scored a stunning free kick against Croatia to give them lead five minutes before the halftime whistle. His free kick against Ireland in the 35th minute gave Italy the lead against Ireland, as it found the head of AC Milan’s Antonio Cassano. Pirlo sealed the win for Italy in the dying moments as his corner found Mario Balotelli, Italy’s leading scorer in this tournament, as he finished it off in stunning fashion. His cheeky penalty against England is yet another highlight of his tournament performance so far, as he chipped it past and already committed Joe Hart in a show of his pure footballing class. He also made a save on the goal-line off a corner against Germany in the first five minutes, which, if it had gone in, might’ve changed the course of the match from there on out. Barring a calamitous performance against Spain in the Final, he is all-but assured to be declared the best player of the tournament by UEFA when the full-time whistle is blown.
Mario Balotelli’s two goals against Germany saw them through to the Final in Kyiv, but like his first goal of the tournament against Ireland, both goals were the product of beautiful passes, with Cassano evading two defenders before putting in the beautiful cross (which he headed in brilliantly) and the beautiful through-ball by Montolivo to set up the second, which saw Balotelli through on goal behind the chasing German defense, something very uncharacteristic of the pre-tournament favorites.
Italy lined up in a standard 3-5-2 against Spain in the Group C encounter, with Giaccherini and Maggio on the wings of the five-man midfield. The primary means of attack for Italy in this formation was through-balls to Balotelli and Cassano, while trying to disrupt the incredibly talented midfield of Spain. Di Natale went on for an already booked Balotelli in the 56th minute before scoring on the aforementioned through-ball from Pirlo slightly after the hour mark. They also lined up in a 3-5-2 against Croatia, but Pirlo played more of a defensive midfield role.
Since the Ireland match, Italy have lined up in a 4-1-3-2, with Pirlo as a defensive midfielder, playing directly behind Thiago Motta or Montolivo, with Marchiso and De Rossi on the wings. Abate would then come in as a right back, moving Chiellini to left back from his center back role in the 3-5-2, with Barzagli and Bonucci being the center back pairing. I would expect Italy to line up in this formation for the final against Spain. However, because of the success of the 3-5-2 in the opening match, I would not be surprised if Prandelli reverted back to that for the rematch.
THE BOTTOM LINE:
As much as I’d love to see Italy win the Final for the sake of my bet, something tells me that this Spanish team has come too far to lose now. They’re on the brink of becoming the greatest national team side ever by winning three consecutive major international tournaments. To lose now would be as brutal as it gets. That being said, I expect both sides to play cautiously. I’m gonna bet $5 on a 0-0 draw after 90 minutes, which is currently going off at 5/1. I think Spain will either win 1-0 in extra time or seal the win on penalties.
Follow Greg on Twitter @njny