The final is here for Euro 2012. After today one team, Spain or Italy, will be crowned kings of Europe and all that separates these squads from that title is 90 minutes of football in Kiev. Three weeks after these teams drew 1-1 during the group stages they meet again, this time for the continent’s ultimate prize. There will be a winner, whether this match is forced to extra-time, penalty kicks, or both, there will be a result in this match and the history books will have a new chapter on this exciting 2012 European Championship.
How They Got Here
Match 29: Portugal 0 – Spain 0 (Spain Advances 4-2 on Penalties)
Spain got through to the final by beating Portugal on penalty kicks. This was probably the least exciting match of the tournament so far, which is disappointing considering what was at stake and the level of talent between the two sides. In my preview for this match I said that both would teams would be content with winning the game 1-Nil, but as turns out each team was just as happy with this match going to penalty kicks a scoreless draw.
Spain is not historically known for a suffocating defense, and the characteristics of their current squad tend towards offense and passing and not outstanding man-marking. Spain’s coach, Vicente del Bosque, spoke of his team defense after the match, saying “We’re playing better in defense than what the characteristics of our players would suggest. That’s what earns victories.” He’s exactly right, and back when I played high school soccer I even had a t-shirt that said “offense sells tickets, defense wins championships”. Spain did an incredible job containing Portuguese star Cristiano Ronaldo, and that was the difference in this match, especially considering that Spain only had one quality shot during regulation time.
Speaking of Cristiano Ronaldo, as a neutral fan he really let me down in this match. Not because he had a tough game offensively (that will happen when a team decides to focus on one player) but because he did not step forward and take a penalty kick when it mattered most. Whether it was a coaching decision or a personal decision by Ronaldo, he was steadfast on taking the 5th penalty kick for his team and the match never got that far. As Cesc Febregas knocked in the deciding penalty for Spain, Ronaldo was standing at midfield miffed that he was left out of the penalties and that he had zero impact on the game at all. As the best player in your country you have to be involved in the biggest match for your squad in years, and Ronnie holding out to be a potential hero instead of a difference maker really speaks volumes about him as a player.
Match 30: Germany 1 – Italy 2
This match wasn’t even as close as the score-line indicated, Italy dominated this one and deserved to win it. “Super Mario” Balotelli, a 6’2”, 176 pound giant of a soccer player, scored a brilliant “brace” (a term I’d never heard before, what I more commonly call a “double”, which just means he scored two goals) in leading the Azzurri past the Germans once again in a competitive tournament match. This match extended Germany’s winless streak against Italy to eight matches in major tournament play, and helped push Italy into today’s final.
This match surprised me very much. No disrespect to Italy as they are a great squad, but the Germans really let me down on Thursday afternoon. They did not play anywhere near their usual standard, and looked sluggish and slow out on the pitch. The Germans even appeared flat-footed at times, allowing Balotelli to get behind them in the 20th minute to score a header from a cross off Antonio Cassano’s foot, and then again in the 36th minute allowing Balotelli behind the defense. The 21-year old striker took advantage of this chance also, putting a blistering shot into the top right corner of the net, a strike that would have broken fingers if any keeper were able to put a hand to it. Of course after that goal, Balotelli received a yellow card for removing his shirt, and many Italian fans were worried that he would score the hat-trick and take his shirt off again, which would have resulted in a second yellow card and a disqualification from that match and a ban from the final.
Itay controlled the match from there on out, and Germany finally got on the board in injury time of the second half when Federico Baltzaretti was whistled for a handball in the box, and Mesut Oezil netted the penalty kick to make the match 2-1. Germany would have only more chance to tie it and force extra-time, but the chance was snuffed out by the Italian defense and that was that. Gianluigi Buffon deserves a ton of credit for getting the Italian’s this far, without the impressive play by their keeper who knows how far they would have made it in this tournament.
The Final: MATCH 31 – Spain vs. Italy
It all comes down to this, one match to decide the fate of two countries. One team will be crowned champions of Europe this evening; the other will have a long flight home thinking about what could have been. Spain, the top defensive team in this tournament so far (never thought I’d say that) have not conceded a goal since their opening draw with Italy, and haven’t been scored on in nine straight elimination games. There’s not too much I can really about Spain that you haven’t heard before or read in other places, but this team remains excruciatingly tough to beat and do enter today’s match as the favorite. They haven’t lost a match at the European Championships since 2004 and have already matched Western Germany as the only defending champion to return to the final after winning the World Cup in between, so you can see why this team is so highly regarded around the world.
Italy, on the other hand, has sort of flown under the radar in this tournament (as much as a world power like the Azzurri can). They’ve already “upset” England and Germany and today they hope to finish off the Spanish and end this improbable run to the championship in style. This may not be the most talented Italy team of all-time, but they are playing some classic football with Andrea Pirlo running the offense and Gianluigi Buffon holding down the troops defensively. I hate the Italians (thanks to a rivalry with a high school teammate), but I do love the “Mario and Luigi” story-lines that appear when Mario Balotelli plays up to his expectations. I’m kind of hoping that “Super Mario” manages to find his name a few places on the box-score today (a red card would be entertaining too).
No matter who wins this afternoon, I am expected a thoroughly exciting match and one that we will remember until at least the World Cup in 2014. Two great football playing nations are battling it out for an additional €3 million in prize money, a shiny trophy, and perhaps most importantly the bragging rights to be known as the best team in what many consider the best continent for the world’s most popular sport. Kickoff in just under two hours, to the victor be the spoils.
Good luck, Spain and Italy.