They were boring, they’d been figured out, they were a team in decline and Xavi was ready for the knacker’s yard. Over the past few weeks as Euro 2012 has progressed, it seems people have been lining up to have a pop at Spain and when you consider that so many of their matches tend to end up in 1-0 wins (like their last four in the 2010 World Cup did) and their 4-6-0 formation, then perhaps their critics had a point? I’ll hold my hand up and say that I believed they weren’t the force they were in 2008 and 2010 and if I were a betting man. I would have put my money on an impressive Italian side, who been gradually improving throughout the tournament, winning 1-0 last night.
Instead of that though, we were served up the most one sided final of a major international tournament I’ve ever seen – with the possible exception of France’s strange 3-0 win over Brazil in 1998. Spain did a demolition job over a team which I didn’t think played too badly – when they were allowed to. As I alluded to earlier, there were plenty of reasons for Italian confidence going into the game, but the first ten minutes made for very ominous viewing if you were a fan of the Azzurri - Spain built up a head of steam which culminated in a brilliant first goal when Iniesta’s marvellous pass inside the full back picked out Fabregas whose cross enabled David Silva to head home.
Italy certainly had their moments after that and, almost uniquely against Spain, could claim the majority of possession in the first half. For me though, it was like watching something akin to a cat toying with a mouse it has caught – there are times when the cat allows it’s victim to get some distance away from it, but just as you think the mouse might escape, it’s back in the clutches of it’s eventual killer. To be honest, the game was as good as over four minutes from half time when Xavi picked out Jordi Alba’s scintillating forward run to allow the left back to score with ease, but the Italian torment was a long way from complete on a night when, besides running into a great team playing at the top of the game, they also had no luck – Motta having to leave the field injured at a time when they had already used all three substitutes. Two of the Spaniards replacements, Torres and Mata, scored in the final five minutes to give the scoreline a look which was cruel on Italy, but was a fair reflection on how well Spain played.
One thing that has been almost constant in my football watching life has been that the Italian team does nott get stuffed – when they lose it’s almost always by a single goal. Thinking back, I’ve only ever seen them beaten by a wide margin three times – two of these have come pretty recently because they were beaten 3-0 in Euro 2008 by a Holland team playing as well as they have done since the 70’s, but the other one was back in the 1970 World Cup Final by Brazil. I’ve always rated that team from forty two years ago as the best international side I’ve seen, but I’m not so sure about that any more after last night. If you are trying to compare the two, then, although Spain’s 4-6-0 is hardly the same as the one Craig Levein used for Scotland’s away game in the Czech Republic in the qualifying stages for the this year’s competition, I do see the lack of an attacking focal point as a potential weakness.
To be honest, even if Spain played 4-5-1 or 4-4-2, I don’t think they would have the attacking flair that the Brazil of Pele, Tostao, Gerson, Rivelino and Jairzinho had, but they also had a dodgy keeper in Felix and their all out attacking approach meant that they only kept one clean sheet (against England) in the six matches they played on their way to winning the first World Cup to be held in Mexico. It’s impossible to predict who would have won if the two best international teams I’ve seen played each other, but it’s fun to guess what might have happened. My inkling is that, when Brazil were really on their game, their attacking play would mean they were capable of beating anyone in a one off game. However, over a series of, say, ten matches, I’d back Spain to win more of them for two reasons, firstly, they are so hard to play against and secondly, Felix and his defence would ensure that Brazil conceded at least once in about eight of those matches – I suppose what I’m saying is that I now rate the current Spain side above that marvellous Brazil team from my youth.
As to what sort of tournament Euro 2012, I’d say it was not as exciting or dramatic as the one held in Austria and Switzerland four years ago, but it was still a good competition – certainly far better than the World Cup held in South Africa in between times. Besides Spain, Italy, Germany, Ukraine, Croatia and Portugal all had their moments, while, before last night, the best attacking football I saw came from Russia in demolishing the Czech Republic in their first match, but they were flattering to deceive and made a their exit in the group stages. As for the two “local” sides, England were hard working, spirited and did well to come back from 2-1 down to Sweden (for whom Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored my goal of the tournament against the enigma that is France), but they lacked poise, were unable to pass the ball even remotely as well as most of the other sides in the competition and, apart from that one game mentioned earlier, never looked convincing going forward. It was sad to see the Republic of Ireland struggle so badly- by any measure, they had to be regarded as the worst team out of the sixteen and it looked like one tournament too far for many of their veterans, with the decline of Given, Dunne and O’Shea being factors as to why a defence which had often looked so good in qualifying, appeared so porous against Croatia, Spain and Italy.
Despite being eclipsed in the Final by Xavi, I’d nominate Andrea Pirlo (who was excellent against England and Germany and actually managed to score direct from a free kick) as the best player in the tournament, with Xabi Alonso as runner up – Cristiano Ronaldo is far from being a favourite of mine, but I thought that when he was good, he was very good in Euro 2012 and so I’d put him in third place. There has to be a chance that the expansion which will see twenty four teams involved in Euro 2016 will result in a drop in quality, but for now, Brazil 2014 will have to go some to ensure that the World Cup regains it’s reputation for being the foremost international football competition in the world – it’s certainly not any more in terms of entertainment.