Spain v Italy, 19:45
So, it ends where it all began for these two sides, and the tight 1-1 draw they played out in Gdansk could well prove an excellent blueprint for the final of Euro 2012, to be held in Kiev. In their initial encounter Antonio Di Natale had given Italy the lead before Cesc Fabregas got Spain level amidst a host of misses from Fernando Torres, who had come on as a sub. Before the Chelsea striker entered the field of play Spain had dominated possession, meaning the Italian defence was weakened and tired, theoretically there for the taking.
If the Spanish attempt the same thing in the final you couldn’t blame them, and the critics of their tactics seem genuinely not to understand top-level football. When you are facing a player like Pirlo, or any top passer of the ball you simply do not want to let them have any space in possession, and if you can deny them possession you don’t have to worry about the space. Spain have just found a way to neutralise anyone in world football, by cutting of their supply of the ball, and by extension the attacking threat they pose.
This rarely makes more sense than against a side like Italy, with some aging men and a man in Pirlo who is one of the few that would get into the Spanish midfield, such is his brilliance. Long recognised as one of the true maestros of the game, his release by Milan last summer was baffling, and proven to be a bad bit of business as he led new side Juventus to the title. An international title would be proof that Pirlo is not just still competitive, but one of the elite in Europe, if further proof is needed.
For Spain the historical side of this has been dealt with, and the challenge of retaining their European title and winning three international competitions in a row is undoubtedly a daunting one, but this is a special group of players. They are 5/4 favourites for a reason, and that is their record in big tournaments. If Pirlo is proving himself one of the greats this summer then Xavi and Iniesta are simply hammering home yet more evidence in the case for potentially being the best midfield ever to be seen on a football pitch, and their manager hasn’t a bad CV either.
If, is expected the 4-6-0 formation is used by Spain then Cesc Fabregas is favourite to start in the central position. Italy’s Ignazio Abate should be fit after a hamstring injury, as should Antonio Cassano (twisted knee), Mario Balotelli (cramp) and Daniele De Rossi (sciatic nerve problem). This frees up some defensive options for Cesare Prandelli, and if his side score first it will be hard for Spain. Balotelli is 15/2 favourites with StanJames to get the first goal, although I quite like the 6’s with VictorChandler on a 1-1. Penalties would be hell for fans of the two teams, but as an Englishman I don’t think I’d object.