How do you improve on perfection? To follow Vicente Del Bosque’s example you must first flirt with imperfection. Euro 2012 has been won in brutal style, to make Spain’s generation of 2008 to 2012 the best international team of all time, in terms of achievement.
This time, they have achieved immortality while all the time searching for a formula. The ‘false nine’, ‘4-6-0’, toying with Fernando Torres, the mystifying selection of Alvaro Negredo against Portugal, the bringing on of a winger in Jesus Navas with no striker to aim at against Croatia have all been experimental, and confusing to many. But on the balance of again being crowned kings of Europe, all have paid off.
Del Bosque has felt able to tinker because he has such good players at his disposal. While equations have been tried, tested and discarded, games have been won, and only one goal has been conceded. They had won trophies together before. This time they just did it differently, in a manner against orthodoxy, though there is nothing unorthodox about the simplicity of being a lot better than anyone else. In Kiev, they also did it better.
Having already proved his team could dominate a continent by playing without a striker, Del Bosque then showed he could have done so with one too, when Fernando Torres’ cameo supplied a goal for himself and an assist for Juan Mata. That Torres - who has started just two matches at the tournament - wins the Golden Boot served as further illustration of a team from a different galaxy, let alone continent, to the rest of Europe.
In a tournament where defensive and negative teams have been too often undone by not actually being able to defend, Spain took victory by playing their own game, and not worrying about what the opposition did. Their game is not reactive. It plays to their own strengths: those of possession and almost extra-sensory interchange of passing.
Who needs mere strikers when you have the players they can call on? Among the many things Spain have proved is that good players really can play anywhere. That goes for Sergio Ramos, once a full-back, now a dominant central defender and the versatile Alvaro Arbeloa too. It certainly goes for Jordi Alba who showed he is both fine defender and deadly attacking weapon. And Cesc Fabregas, the man long expected to succeed Xavi as creative midfield fulcrum, led the forward line as well as anyone else has during Euro 2012.
It helps that in Xavi and Andres Iniesta, they have two leaders with unmatchable powers of creation. Xavi, who had often looked tired over the last three weeks, was finally restored to his former self, that of the pinpoint of Spain’s triangular passing patterns, the backbeat to their rhythm. Iniesta meanwhile is now perhaps the world’s foremost ‘big-game player’. There have been very few grand occasions when impish Iniesta has not come through for his team. In South Africa it was he who supplied the World Cup-winning goal. This time he played architect rather than executioner.
The Iniesta pass that set Cesc Fabregas down the right-hand side to play the cross for diminutive David Silva to head in was delicately weighted in its precision. The goal killed stone-dead a period of Italian pressure. It should be noted that Italy had not set out to spoil. They intended to play their own game too.
Xavi matched his old friend’s influence when showing the patience, awareness and sixth sense to play through to Jordi Alba to score on the overlap. Alba took his goal in a style any top-class No. 9 would covet, let alone a false one. If this was a night to confirm a team’s primacy and place in the pantheon, then it is apt that Alba’s finish reminded of Carlos Alberto’s clincher for Brazil in the World Cup final of 1970 - the team’s inspirational force - Xavi as Pele - buying himself time to supply a full-back’s thumping finish.
Xavi and Iniesta’s utter dominance made Andrea Pirlo peripheral. The player of the tournament prior to Kiev’s final was not neutralised by the negative of being man-marked. Instead, Italy’s maestro was rendered anonymous by his equivalent, Xavi, being in control. The Italians’ hopes of throwing the Spaniards off-tempo were crushed because they were pressed yet harder. Pirlo was to be found chasing Xavi rather than playing playmaker. The Italian maestro’s long passes could never exert the influence of his Spanish counterpart’s staccato short game.
Thiago Motta’s brief appearance and subsequent injury robbed Cesare Prandelli of any chance of rescuing the game though even by the time Italy were reduced to ten men, the game was up. By then Spain already had them in desperate pain. Once Spain settled, Italy’s attacks looked hurried and harassed. The frustration of having to chase and then suffocated whenever briefly in possession meant that any chances were snatched at, and Antonio Cassano and Mario Balotelli were never allowed in from the far fringes of the game.
“They completely dominated the contest this evening,” admitted Prandelli. “We have to congratulate a great team.”
Spain’s successes of 2008, 2010 and now 2012 have been based on possession and passing. They are now in possession of international football history after surpassing all that has been put in front of them. Next stop is the World Cup in Brazil and a chance to smash down another frontier. Perhaps only the march of time can stop the Spanish. This was their most emphatic victory yet.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Xavi - In these stats-crazed times, it would seem pertinent to point out he completed 41 from 44 final-third passes, including two assists. He supplied a performance to match his dominance of the final four years ago in Vienna. Talk of him as a spent force now seems laughably premature.
SPAIN VERDICT: Simply the best. They had been toying with us all along. After winning two previous finals 1-0, this time they supplied their Brazil 1970 moment in thrashing four past Italy to confirm themselves as Europe’s best-ever team. They did it without David Villa and Carles Puyol too.
ITALY: As painful an evening as the Azzurri have ever suffered. There were brief moments after Silva’s opener when they looked capable of making it a contest but Alba’s overlapping goal wounded them mortally, only for Motta’s reducing of them to ten men to completely kill them off. If there is one reason for their embarrassment it is that their midfield just could not cope with Spain’s greater numbers and much higher class.
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