Spain vs Italy – A Battle of the Titans
So it happened, perhaps not quite like many would have predicted but the almost inevitable happened – Spain beat Portugal and now must face off against Italy in Sunday’s eagerly anticipated Euro 2012 final. Undoubtedly it will be a tough match. Italy have already proven they can match Spain blow for blow with their 1-1 draw against the current holders in the group stage. Spain, like Barcelona are the golden boys of football today. Their passing game, footballing brain and build-up play is touted as how the beautiful game should be played. Unsurprising, really, when you consider how many of the players on the national side have come through Barcelona’s famed La Masia academy, who have had the tiki taka style of football imprinted on their brains from a young age. They’ve already won the European Championship back in 2008 courtesy of a 33rd minute goal from Fernando Torres, ensuring a 1-0 victory over Germany. But can they retain the trophy they already have one hand on?
Spain are an excellent side, like Barcelona, there’s no doubt about it. In Iniesta and Xavi they possess the greatest two midfielders of the present day, supplemented by the forces of Xabi Alonso, Sergio Ramos, Gerard Pique and the solid form of Madrid stopper, Iker Casillas. Ever since their elimination from the World Cup of 2006, they began to employ the tiki-taka style, an upgrade of the Dutch total football system, characterised by short passing and plenty of movement around the pitch, complemented with extended possession of the ball. And it has clearly worked. The first tournament following the disappointing World Cup was Euro 2008. Spain won each match of the group stage, went on to claim the trophy and were the highest scoring team, while David Villa took the gong for top scorer.
But they have their flaws too. Tika-taka may sometimes be breath-taking to watch but unless it’s going somewhere then it is somewhat redundant. Ugly football that wins games is more useful than entertaining play that comes up short. We saw this on Wednesday night when the Spanish faced off against Portugal in the semi-finals. Head to head, Spain had the better players, while for Portugal only three players attempted to stand out – Ronaldo, Nani and Fabio Coentrao storming up the wing. But Spain were sloppy and certainly not their usual selves. Several passes went astray, the vision and touch seemed to be lacking and Portugal really should have taken their chance to knock their neighbours out. Spain slowed the pace of their game right down, passing, passing, passing, with the occasional strike on goal. A David Silva move highlights the problems their mentality sometimes brings, and something we have seen on more than one occasion. On the edge of the box in the first half, Silva had the ball on his foot, with the space to shoot at goal, a position he has been in and scored from many a time. Instead, he passed the ball off, and the move petered out. This shows the need for a strong striker up front for Spain, a real presence at the top, a Wayne Rooney, a Didier Drogba. Spain do have forwards, Fernando Torres (who hasn’t exactly been at his best of late), Alvaro Negredo (disappointed thus far) and the skilful Pedro Rodriguez who still has things to learn and who doesn’t always appear supremely confident on the ball. And anyway, Spain prefer to stock the centre and top of the pitch with midfielders anyway. At times in the match against Portugal there were swathes of spaces in front of the Portugal goal, devoid of any red shirts. Spain’s use of the ‘false number 9’, a supposed striker who in reality drops deeper into midfield, usually in the guise of Cesc Fabregas has indeed worked previously. Against France in the quarter finals last Saturday evening it was midfielder Xabi Alonso who grabbed a brace for his country, although it was Florent Malouda and his utter failure to track back which led to the opener, while a fairly soft penalty handed Alonso the chance to net a second, which he duly did. But even the masters of this passing game, Barcelona, utilise strikers up front, to get into the spaces, to draw back defenders or to grab goals in and around the box – David Villa has and will again, Alexis Sanchez who fills in for him while he recovers, the youngster Pedro and last but certainly not least, the unpredictable and supremely talented Lionel Messi.
It will be interesting to see how they come out and play on Sunday. Italy are going to come to win the game and the Championship and will surely be spurred on, both by their own win over Germany and the protracted affair that eventually saw Spain triumph over Portugal, by no means comfortably. Who will win? Italy seem to be riding high at present, almost matching the intricacy of Spain in some of their play. Pirlo works a similar brand of magic to that of Xavi and Iniesta while up front Mario Balotelli is proving himself worthy. And while many in the media will rave about Spain, their deft passing game, their vision, the pedigree of their players, my money is on the Italians.