• Monday, 2 July 2012

    Yesterday at the Euros #19

    This is the end. We often amaze ourselves when we actually see something through.

    Spain were into their stride quickly with the 'ole's from the crowd beginning as early as the ninth minute. Ahead of the Portugal game, Andres Iniesta had said they'd combat the threat of Cristiano Ronaldo by denying him the ball. That didn't quite work, but if it was the intention to deal with Andrea Pirlo - surely the player of the tournament - then it worked a treat. Italy couldn't get hold of the ball and Pirlo cut a peripheral figure. Not only that, but while we all coo and gush over Spain's passing, what is often overlooked is the work that goes in off the ball. They press everywhere. When an opponent picks the ball up, he has a red jersey in front of him. There is no space, no time and no chance of building pressure.

    The passing, as ever, was crisp and quick. With 15 minutes gone, Iniesta freed Alvaro Arbeloa down the right and he cut back for David Silva to head the opener. Late in the first half, Italy may have thought they were getting back into it and going in to the break only one down was a bit of a result. But then Jordi Alba got the ball on the left, tapped it infield to Xavi and hared off up the field. Xavi's return was predictably perfect and Alba smashed in his first senior international goal on the biggest stage. 2-0 and suddenly Italy had a mountain to climb.

    The killer blow arrived late with Italy already down to ten men, substitute Thiago Motta forced off injured just moments after coming on. It was Cesare Prandelli's third and final change. Again it was Xavi with the money ball, again as a result of that pressing. Italy were robbed in midfield and two touches later it was in the back of the net off Fernando Torres's right boot. The fourth was cruel. Juan Mata had barely been on for a minute when Torres squared for him and he slotted it beyond Gianluigi Buffon to wrap up an emphatic win. It was Mata's first touch and, again, the movement off the ball simply exquisite in creating the opportunity. The three added minutes at the end must have felt like an eternity to anyone of even slightly Italian persuasion. Where was the mercy?

    And that's your lot from Poland and Ukraine and what did we learn? That many people find excellence boring, that England have a long old road to travel from the tactical abyss they find themselves in, that the Dutch never fail to find new levels of in-fighting to ruin another tournament. The rise of the goalkeeper as captain is to be praised, especially where both captains in the final were the respective custodians. Special mention for Casillas too, who won his 100th international in the final, something nobody else has ever done. At 31, he could go on to play another two World Cups yet, maybe two more Euros too. We will not be sorry to see the end of the kick-off countdown. That's something that can be taken round the back and shot.

    In four years time, almost half the nations affiliated to UEFA will appear in the finals in France as the competition is expanded to 24. If this is the last great European Championships, it's fitting that a truly great team won it.

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