New Asia Republic
Part of our EURO week, where we look at more serious stuff like IMF, and on a more light-hearted and sporty note, the European Cup final featuring Spain VS Italy
Soccer and politics can sometimes throw up a dose of irony that draws a chuckle from many a neutral observer. Italy and Spain were in the same team that took on Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel in the political field at the EU summit. Both were victorious and succeeded in cracking Merkel’s resistance, and as a result, Euro-zone countries can receive aid without agreeing to tough austerity measures provided they fulfil some criteria.
Come this Sunday at Kiev Olympic Stadium, it will not be Spain and Italy versus Germany, but a renewal of rivalry between Italy and Spain. Both met during the group stages of the competition which ended in a 1-1 draw.
Odds on favourite – a moot point
At the semi-final stage and beyond, any team is capable of beating the other. When Spain faced its Iberian rival Portugal, both teams were deadlocked even though it was Spain who was the pre-match favourite. Spain was not able to play its usual possession football, the Portugese played a high line, adopting the similar approach as Spain and pressured its defence at times to prevent them from playing the ball out of their half. When the ball reached the Spanish midfielders, there was always a Portugese player closing down and denying his opponent space and time. It wasn’t surprising that David Silva had an off day, as did Xavi, who were both substituted. Spain only started dominating during extra time, but it required a penalty shoot-out for it to see out Portugal.
The other semi-final between Germany and Italy told the same tale. Germany was favourites to end its hoodoo over Italy, whom it has never beaten in any competition. That never happened. Andrea Pirlo seized control of the midfield, together with colleagues Riccardo Montolivo and Daniele de Rossi. Pirlo started a move from inside his own half with a pass to Giorgio Chiellini who subsequently passed to Antonio Cassano who beat his marker and crossed into the German box which was met by Mario Balotelli with a headed goal. Italy raced into a 2-0 lead before half time when Montolivo received the ball after it was punched out by goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, spotted Balotelli’s run and made a pass over the German defence from deep inside his half to him, which he finished with aplomb. Despite, Mesut Özil’s penalty goal pulling one back for Germany during injury time, it was a case of too little too late. The pre-match favourites crashed out with a 2-1 defeat to Italy.
Hence, what Italy and Spain did in previous matches is just academic, with each team having a decent shot at claiming the European Cup.
How Spain can win it
Many have accused Spain of being boring, knocking the ball tiki taka-style in little triangles, similar to how FC Barcelona plays its game. However, it is an effective style of play, firstly, it has the players with the technical ability to retain possession. Possession is actually an effective form of defence, especially when you have the players who can carry it out. When Spain has the lead, and starts its passing game in small triangles, opponents who need to score will come at Spain, and this will leave gaps behind in defence, which can be exploited to further its advantage.
Secondly, it is also very difficult to constantly maintain high levels of concentration against the likes of Spain especially when it has highly mobile players who make off-the-ball runs into scoring positions. One of the most difficult aspects about marking is the failure to track the running man, which can even occur at the highest level. After Italy took a 1-0 lead against Spain in the earlier group game, a lapse of concentration in the Italian defence saw it fail to track the run of Cesc Fabregas, who latched on to a David Silva through-pass and scored to equalise, cancelling out a lead which lasted a mere 3 minutes. The Italian defence is prone to such lapses of concentrations, which explained its captain and goalkeeper, Buffon’s outburst against his team-mates who allowed Germany back into the game with Özil’s penalty goal during the later stages.
Xavi Hernandez is likely to return to the Spanish first-team to pull the strings in midfield. Andreas Iniesta, David Silva and Xabi Alonso are also likely to retain their places in the starting 11. Iniesta is technically proficient in most aspects of his game – dribbling, tackling, passing, etc. Capable of beating his man, he can also provide a killer pass, and unlock an entire defence. Similarly, David Silva, who enjoys running at defences and beating his man and provides assists for his team-mates is also capable of causing problems for the Italian defence. Last, but not least, Xabi Alonso’s qualities lie in his huge passing range.
The question is which formation will Spain’s coach Vincente Del Bosque come up with prior to kick-off. He has employed the false number 9 with Cesc Fabregas the forward man. Spain will be interested in restricting Andrea Pirlo’s influence, something which England and Germany failed to contain. If Spain plays a high line, playing 4-6-0 and starting with Fabregas is a decent strategy. Del Bosque started with 4-6-0 against Italy in the 1-1 draw. When Fabregas was at Arsenal Football Club, he was originally groomed to succeed Patrick Viera. Originally a box-to-box midfielder in Viera’s mould, he switched to a more forward position in a trident forward line featuring Lionel Messi, Pedro and himself at Barcelona. However, there is a defensive side to Fabregas’ game, and he will be instructed to track Pirlo deep in Italy’s half.
Besides Pirlo, there are other players capable of causing Spain problems, such as De Rossi and Montolivo. Spain correctly identified Italy’s midfield threat, and will attempt to neutralise it. The longer the game wears on, it could work in Spain’s favour. Against Portugal, they have shown that they could step up their game during extra time. Iniesta had a good chance to score against Portugal if not for the heroics of the Portugese goalkeeper.
How Italy can win it
If any lesson is needed in neutralising Spain, Portugal has certainly provided it. It prevented Spain from dictating the tempo, closing down on Spanish defenders and preventing them from playing the ball out of their half. Portugal also played a disciplined zonal marking system, whenever any Spanish player had the ball, even at the halfway line, the nearest Portugese player would snap at his heels, denying him space and time. However, the problem with Portugal was that when they won the ball in their own half, the passes to their forwards like Nani went astray more often than not. They are not able to convert the possession they won from Spain deep in their half into any advantage.
This is where Italy differs from Portugal. They have the players who can make devastating passes and initiate dangerous attacks from deep. Clearly, Italy also has players with good passing ranges similar to Xabi Alonso in Pirlo, De Rossi and Montolivo. A case in point is during Italy’s game against England when Pirlo received the ball in his own half and lofted a pass over English defence to the advancing Balotelli, who was denied by a last ditch tackle by John Terry. In the semi final against Germany, Pirlo started the attack inside his half near the halfway line with a pass to Chiellini that subsequently led to Balotelli’s goal. And he was the one that provided the defence splitting pass that led to Italy’s goal against Spain. Italy is the only team to have scored against Spain so far in the tournament. Much has been made about Pirlo’s lack of pace, but that is not really important. No one expects Pirlo to chase Spain’s striker Fernando Torres in a 100 yard sprint. What matters is Pirlo’s ability to make the most devastating of passes. Likewise, his team mate, Montolivo, was responsible for Italy’s second goal against Germany, providing an inch-perfect pass to Balotelli from deep inside his own half.
Spain will play a high line, and if they cede possession to Italy deep in its territory, this is where Italy can hurt Spain, through players like Montolivo, De Rossi and Pirlo’s incisive passing from deep and a forward line of Antonio Cassano and Balotelli. Cassano is having a good tournament, while Balotelli has demonstrated his potential with his finishing against Germany. An athletic forward with good technique, he also possesses an aerial ability which could be a threat to the Spanish’s defence. He scored a good goal against Ireland, and gradually improved over the games. In fact, Spain could be a little suspect in terms of dealing with set pieces, and if they concede any, Italy does have the players who can score from such.
Which formation will Italy’s coach Cesare Prandelli opt for? It is highly probable he will opt to crowd the midfield and the center. If Spain starts with 4-6-0, then 3-5-2 will be the answer, and this time with De Rossi playing the role of midfielder-defender hybrid again.
Enjoy the game
As it is, both teams in it have what it takes to win. Will it be the La Roja or Azzurri? All depends on how much the players themselves want it badly. The Italians want to give their nation something to cheer about after the match-fixing scandal as much as the Spanish want to set a new record of winning 3 international tournaments in a row. So let’s take out our pop-corns and enjoy this mouth-watering clash between two giants of European football.
Euro Cup photo courtesy of alisharusher, Flickr Commons
Andrea Pirlo photo courtesy of Gilyo, Flickr Commons