Two teams – one that was expected to reach the summit clash and one that was mired in controversy and was least expected to reach the final – make up for a cracking culmination to the three week long Euro 2012 Championships. Spain comes on the back of their Euro 2008 and World Cup 2010 triumphs and start as big favorites. Italy have fallen off the charts since their 2006 World Cup win and are in the process of rebuilding. The match fixing controversy back home does not seem to have affected them and they have very well earned the right to play the final on Sunday.
While Spain start as firm favorites for Sunday’s big match, the Italians can upset their applecart by playing some intelligent football and not being overawed either by the occasion or by the opponents. In Gianluigi Buffon, they have one of the best goalkeepers not just in Europe but the whole world. At 34, he brings a lot of experience to the young squad. With such a safe pair of hands, the Italian defence has a little breathing space but still will have to be very tight against the marauding Spanish midfielders. Christian Maggio, Giorgio Chiellini, Federico Balzaretti and Leonardo Bonucci should be the defenders that Coach Cesar Prandelli picks for tomorrow’s game. Chiellini and Bonucci can easily switch flanks without compromising their natural game and Maggio and Balzaretti can well complement each other in the pivotal central defence.
The selection of midfielders can be tricky for Prandelli. If I were the Italian coach, I would go with Daniele De Rossi, Riccardo Montolivo, Andrea Pirlo and Alessandro Diamanti. The choice is really between Diamanti and Antonio Nocerino but the Bologna midfielder could get the nod because he is far more attacking than Nocerino. The Italians should always have a surprise up their sleeve because it is so powerful a weapon to outsmart your opponents. Emmanuele Giacherini could well be that surprise package if he comes on sometime during the second half.
The Italians are known to adopt the catenaccio style but with some superb forwards in their line up, they can really afford to play two of them tomorrow – the unlikely duo of Mario Balotelli and Antonio Di Natale. With their differences in style of play, they could be more than a handful as a pair. For that, they need to put way their apparent dislike for each other in the locker rooms. Fabio Borini and Sebastian Giovinco are unlikely to get chances in the pressure game.
The 4-4-2 formation is the most likely to get the Italians a result in their favor. Bonucci can feed passes on to the dangerous Pirlo or the hardworking Montolivo and then Balotelli and Natale will have to ensure that the chances they get are converted. Chiellini could have one-on-one efforts with De Rossi that can be damaging to the Spanish midfield and defence opening up plenty of opportunities for Balotelli and Di Natale to exploit. Italy will have to look to attack and score the early goal. The catenaccio could be reserved for the final ten minutes of play.
Spain will be well aware of the dangers that the talented Italian players pose. They have the advantage of a well set team and a group of players that understand each other really well. Iker Casillas will no doubt be guarding the Spanish bastion with his defenders likely to be Gerard Pique, Sergio Ramos, Alvaro Arbeloa and the impressive Jordi Alba. Unfortunately for Spain, these defenders do not have the capability to switch flanks like their Italian counterparts and this could prove decisive.
Five midfielders and one forward should be Coach Vicente Del Bosque’s plan for retaining the title. Andres Iniesta, Xavi Hernandez, Cesc Fabregas and Xabi Alonso pick themselves. The competition for the fifth midfielder’s slot could be between Jesus Navas and David Silva. Frankly, there is nothing to choose between them and both of them deserve a place in the playing eleven. But, probably only one of them will play, leaving room for Del Bosque to pick Fernando Torres. They will really need this because the struggles in regulation time to score a goal against Portugal cannot be repeated in the big match. The Italian defence is far better than Portugal’s. With Torres’ uncanny finishing, Spain would definitely be the better side. Torres is angry at having been sidelined and there really is nothing like a wounded lion.
Spain’s strategy would be to negate the Italian defence with through passes to Torres or Fabregas who can play a bit more forward than he usually does. Iniesta’s playmaking skills will be very important to counter the one-on-one dance that the pair of Chiellini – De Rossi is capable of offering. Gerard Pique will have the unenviable task of stopping the tall Balotelli. Jordi Alba’s quick runs through the left can be effective for Fabregas and Torres to capitalize on.
Italy will certainly need to have the surprise element at some point of time in the match to take the initiative while Spain will look to control the outcome by waiting for their opponents to make mistakes. While a mouth-watering penalty shootout with two of the best goalkeepers in the world is certainly something to watch out for, it would pain me to see the winners being decided on the shootout. Nevertheless, a win would be fitting for both teams – for Spain, to prove that their past record of perennial underachievers is unquestionably put to rest and for Italy, to go home with their heads held high in spite of all the negative things happening to their football association as well as players. May the better team win!