By Nick Craddock
Spain or Italy has won each of the last three major tournaments (2006 World Cup, 2008 European Championship, 2010 World Cup) and either Spain or Italy will have its named etched onto the European Championship trophy after today’s title game.
Coincidentally, fate seems to have brought both teams to the cusp of a championship yet again.
Much like the 2006 World Cup, the Italian national team entered this tournament amidst a gambling probe into the top flight of Italian soccer, where all but three players on the national team play their trade during the course of the season.
Rather than succumbing to the pressure of the media scrutiny and the off-field distractions, the Italians, much like the 2006 Italian squad, have come together to play a solid team game and to manage a surprise or two (Remember, it was host Germany which the Italians defeated in the World Cup semifinals in 2006 and a heavily-favored German team which the Italians beat to advance to this final).
This Italian team’s version of Mario and Luigi is not exactly identical to the mustached, overall-wearing Italian brothers who morph by eating mushrooms with faces, but, weird mushroom diet aside, striker Mario Balotelli and goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon are responsible for forming what has been a prolific one-two punch.
Just ask the Germans.
In fact, Italy was almost the first team to keep a clean sheet against Germany in a competitive match dating back to the Germans’ loss in the 2010 World Cup semifinal to who else but the Spaniards. The fact that the Italians had a chance to preserve the clean sheet is largely attributable to Buffon, who made three or four great, albeit unorthodox, saves from the oncoming German attack. Buffon’s efforts also preserved the early two-goal lead Balotelli provided for his team in his breakthrough game of the tournament.
Meanwhile, the Spanish are back in title contention after advancing from the semifinals via a clinching Cesc Fabregas penalty kick against Portugal. It was also a successfully converted Fabregas penalty kick that propelled the Spanish en route to their march to the title four years ago. Moreover, the Spanish have been slow starters at the past two tournaments (losing to Switzerland two years ago in South Africa in its opener; tying its opening game on June 10 in Gdansk), but have hit their stride as the tournament progressed, as has been the case the last three weeks in Poland and Ukraine.
Spain manager Vicente Del Bosque has not rested on a set formula for attacking options at Euro 2012, opting to leave Fernando Torres on the bench for the duration of the semifinal. The Spaniards were playing some of their best combination football against Portugal and putting shots on goal, but Del Bosque might wonder if a striker with more finishing ability in the final third of the field will be necessary—especially with the not-too-shabby Italian midfield trying to clog the center of the field and prevent Spain from a more open-passing, flowing style of play.
Spain and Italy played against each other in Group C’s opening game. That game resulted in a 1-1 draw. Now, Spain and Italy will close this tournament against each other and the only certainty you can take from this preview is that this game will have a different outcome than the teams’ first meeting.
Players to Watch: This very well could be the most consistent Balotelli has played for a five-game stretch. Despite his two great goals in Italy’s semifinal, particularly his second goal, he coupled a moment of brilliance with a moment of stupidity by taking his jersey off and receiving a yellow card. If a hot-tempered Balotelli picks up an early booking, he could just as easily be a detriment to his team with an untimely sending off in the championship game. Thus, these erratic moments need to be kept to a minimum. In a single-elimination game, anything can (and will likely) happen. For the most part, Germans midfielders Mesut Ozil and Sami Khedira were frustrated by the Italian midfielders in the last semifinal. However, the Spanish boast the best arsenal of midfielders in the world and, seeing that Fernando Torres’ role in the title game remains up in the air, Xavi Hernandez or Cesc Fabregas might be called upon for but one flash of wonder. Both players usually deliver in clutch time for La Roja. No reason exists to prevent either of them from cementing Spain’s golden generation of footballers’ place among the elite in soccer history.
Prediction: Spain wins 1-0 to capture an unprecedented third consecutive major championship.
Stay tuned for the next edition of TheSportsKraze.