So it’s finally here. After 4 weeks of some exhilarating (and at times, some not-so-exhilarating) football, the Grand Finale is finally upon us!
Sunday night sees defending champions Spain take on an impressive Italy side in the Euro 2012 final – a repeat of the Euro 2008 quarter-final, which Spain won on penalties and ultimately went on to win the tournament.
The stage is set for what could very well be a cracking game – a game which pits two sides who play completely different systems against each other. Both sides have already met in the group stages in what was one of the best games of the tournament.
Here are a few pre-match talking points:
The Formations – 4-6-0 v 3-5-2?
Both Spain and Italy have played interesting variations of different systems throughout the Euro 2012 tournament.
Spain, apart from a couple of games, have played a Barcelona-like 4-6-0, with Cesc Fabregas in the striker/false-nine role, David Silva and Andres Iniesta either side of him. Vicente del Bosque’s striker-less formation has been largely successful, and in all probability, he will once against stick with his preferred system.
My call: Since the ‘Alvaro Negredo’ experiment didn’t work out in the semi-final against Portugal – the player unimpressive and largely anonymous throughout the game, expect Spain to stick with their tried-and-tested 4-6-0, with Fernando Torres coming on as an impact sub at around the hour-mark.
Italy too have played an interesting 3-5-2 formation (or a 3-5-2/5-3-2 variation) for many of their games in the tournament – including the 1-1 stalemate when the two sides met in the group stages. Let’s not forget that their 3-5-2 formation was fairly successful against Spain in terms of keeping them at bay – a game which saw Danielle de Rossi in the ‘sweeper’ position and putting in an impressive shift, and Emanuele Giaccherini and Christian Maggio taking the wing-back positions. Both the Italian wingbacks were relatively reserved in that game, as is evident by their heat-maps below:
However Cesare Prandelli has since reverted back to a more orthodox 4-4-2, especially in Italy’s last couple of games including their quarter-final and semi-final victories. An interesting aspect about Italy’s 4-4-2 formation is their midfield quartet, consisting of Andrea Pirlo, Danielle de-Rossi, Claudio Marchisio and Ricardo Montolivo lining up to form a midfield diamond.
My call: Prandelli sticks with his 4-4-2, but I wouldn’t be a least bit surprised if he does decide to go for a 3-5-2, with de Rossi playing between the two central defenders. His decision would probably come down to the players available at his disposal, and their fitness levels.
Formations and Starting Line-up
Assuming that Spain play 4-6-0 and Italy a 4-4-2:
Spain have a plethora of talent to call upon from the bench: Fernando Torres will most likely be used as an impact sub, a target-man, most likely to be brought on sometime in the second half. The likes of Jesus Navas and Pedro can come off the bench and provide a burst of pace and width, stretching the play – something which could come in handy against tired legs and Italy’s narrow formation. And let’s not forget that Spain also have a relatively-fresh Juan Mata to call upon, a player well capable of unlocking tight defenses and providing energy and drive in the midfield.
Italy’s subs have perhaps not had the sort of impact that Prandelli would’ve liked them to have. Apart from one notable exception – Antonio di Natale. It was di Natale’s exceptional goal – following a good run and a truly brilliant finish – that gave Italy that 1-1 draw against Spain when these two met earlier in the tournament.
Apart from di Natale, Italy have Sebastian Giovinco to call upon. Giovinco’s has had a good season with Parma, and his pace and ability to find space between the lines could be useful. Italy also have Alessandro Diamanti who can come on as a substitute for either striker, and Thiaggo Motta, who can come in for Montolivo.
Xavi is a player who needs absolutely no introduction. Xavi not only boasts the highest number of passes attempted (509 total, 102 per game on average), passes completed (473 total), key passes (20 total) and the highest passing success rate (93%) in this particular tournament, he has been doing it time and time again for both club and country since many-a-years now.
Pirlo has had the campaign of his life for Juventus. He had an outstanding domestic season in Serie A, has was instrumental in taking Juventus to Scudetto glory while finishing unbeaten in their domestic campaign. Pirlo topped the stats charts in 17 different categories in the Italian league, has once more stacked up some impressive stats while on national duty – 2 assists, 366 passes in total, 2.2 accurate crosses per game, 50 total accurate long balls (10 per game), and a passing success rate of 88%. Expect Pirlo to pull the strings from deep within Italy’s midfield and dictate the tempo of the game – something that he’s done brilliantly and consistently. Pirlo was also the man who played a wonderfully weighted through-ball to di Natale, following a jaw-dropping burst of pace, that put Italy on level terms with Spain in their group-stage game.
Jordi Alba, for me, has been Spain’s MVP in their Euro 2012 campaign. His performances have been really impressive on Spain’s left-flank, so much so that a relatively-unknown player before the tournament is now Spain’s established left-back and one of the first names on their team-sheet. He comes off completing a successful transfer to Barcelona from Valencia, so confidence will understandably be quite high. He will also be a handful for the Italian players, and by far the more adventurous of the two Spanish fullbacks, he will provide his team with some width down that left-flank.
Balotelli will be raring to go after leading his side to the finals, scoring two fine goals against the Germans in the semi-final which put his side 2-0 up against one of the tournament’s favourites. His second goal, in particular, was a tremendous finish – a possible goal of the tournament contender – and his confidence will be at an all-time high. Hands down, Italy’s most dangerous player. Has 3 goals to his name, and needs just one more goal to win the Euro 2012 golden-boot.
Important Battles (and Battlefields)
Despite the fact that both sides play totally different formations, and have completely different players, one thing common between the two is that both Spain and Italy like to play through the middle (with Spain perhaps having more width, thanks to their fullbacks), and are two genuine ball-playing teams.
Quite safe to say that these two teams have the best midfields in the tournament – something that has ultimately been a decisive factor in success throughout the campaign and ultimately reaching the final.
Spain have set the benchmark, in terms of possession, passing and playing some fluid, ‘tiki-taka’ football. Their passing success remains the highest in the tournament, at 67%, and their passing can make just about any team look ordinary. They have some of the best ball-passers in the world like now and players who can keep possession even under pressure – most notably Xavi and Andres Iniesta.
The Italians are no slouches in this field either, as was abundantly clear in their semi-final game against Germany, where they were able to make the Germans look ordinary by passing around their players with the utmost ease.
Xavi vs Pirlo
A battle of the pass-masters, two players who are without a shadow of a doubt, the finest midfielders in the world right now!
While Xavi hasn’t had the kind of tournament many were expecting he’d have (tiredness and fatigue perhaps?) – and certainly not the sort of tournament that saw his stock rise during Spain’s Euro 2008 triumph – make no mistake, the Barcelona pass-master will without a doubt be at the heart of everything when his team are in possession.
Andrea Pirlo too has unsurprisingly been at the hub of everything Italy have done well, throughout the course of this tournament. He is one of the best in the business, one of the most difficult players to play against in the game. One reason for this, apart from his superb vision and passing range, is the fact that he playes extremely deep, making it near-impossible for any players to mark.
Pirlo vs Fabregas
In Italy’s semi-final against Germany, German manager Joachim Low said that the key to stopping Spain would be stopping Pirlo – something that the Germans failed to do.
Spain will be required to do what Germany and Toni Kroos didn’t do – deny Pirlo space. The man tasked with this responsibility will in all likelihood be Cesc Fabregas, Spain’s most advanced midfielder. Fabregas is a player who is defensively disciplined, having played very deep in the midfield during most of his time at former club Arsenal, and his energy and defensive ability would mean that he would be required to ensure that Pirlo does is denied space and the freedom to roam the midfield whenever Italy are in possession.
Pique vs Balotelli
Mario Balotelli: “I will invite Shakira to the final, so that she can see what I will do to her boyfriend (Pique).”
It remains to be seen whether Shakira actually accepts Balotelli’s invitation, but one thing’s certain, I cannot wait to see these two up against each other!
Make no mistake, even though both sides tend to play narrow, the Spanish fullbacks provide width to their play and are adventurous when it comes to attacking runs down the flanks. This could work in Spain’s advantage – by pinning the Italians into their own half and providing an additional dimension to Spain’s play. Or it could allow the Italian players to exploit the space left behind the fullbacks.
If the Spanish fullbacks are caught upfield when out of possession, it will create a 2v2 situation (Balotelli and Cassano vs Pique and Ramos) – an opportunity both Italian strikers will relish.
While Busquets generally tends to stick close to his central defenders to give them additional cover – something that he will most certainly do today as well – let’s not forget that Cassano’s holdup play as well as his ability to find space behind the fullbacks is excellent, as was evident in Italy’s first goal against Germany in the semi-final.
Defense vs Offense
Silva, Iniesta, Fabregas, Torres, Navas, and Pedro vs Buffon, Cheillini, de Rossi, Pirlo, Barzagli, Balzaretti Bonucci, and a disciplined Italian defense.
Vicente del Bosque vs Cesare Prandelli
Both accomplished managers, both great players in their time, and both tactically the most astute gaffers in the world right now!
Best managers in the tournament by a clear mile, both these men have had their tactics on-the-spot each time their teams have come on the field. Once again, which of these two is able to out-wit his opponent will take home the Henri Delaunay.
In 26 previosu meetings between the two sides:
- Spain wins: 7
- Italy wins: 8
- Draws: 11
The odds are stacked firmly against Italy, and while Spain have not been particularly impressive during the course of the tournament, they have done well to grind out narrow 1-0 victories.
I’ll be bold here: a confident Italian team to nick this 2-0 – which sees the underdogs cause a huge upset and take home the Henri Delaunay after 44 years!
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