Finals aren’t usually pretty to watch.
Matches with so much riding on them tend to be settled by who can hold their nerve the best, and an element of luck.
In Euro 2012, it seemed that Spain may have used up all their luck in the semi-final against Portugal, when they edged past their opponents on penalties.
That appeared to be the opinion of Cristiano Ronaldo, who told O Jogo via The Daily Mail afterwards: “It’s always painful losing on penalties but penalties are always a lottery and the one who has the best luck wins”.
Having sneaked through to the final by the skin of their teeth, they now had to wait 24 hours to see who would meet them there. The following day, Italy and Germany faced one another, with Mario Balotelli taking centre-stage. The Manchester City forward scored twice in the first half, whipping off his shirt to flex his muscles after his latter strike flew into the top corner.
In many ways, it was the perfect performance from Italy. They were devastating going forwards before the break, and then defended resolutely in the second half to see out a 2-1 victory which booked their place in the final.
Speaking after the game, Balotelli was quoted by BBC Sport as saying: “This was the greatest night of my life and I hope Sunday will be better”. He had every reason to believe it would be. Italy had been more impressive in their semi-final than Spain, who had looked toothless in attack.
Indeed, that had been a problem for the defending champions throughout the tournament. They had hardly struggled for goals – netting eight times in their five matches – but the form of their strikers was concerning.
In their second group game, Fernando Torres bagged a brace against Republic of Ireland, but had rarely looked like scoring in any of his other appearances. Alvaro Negredo was given a starting berth against Portugal, only to be hauled off before the hour mark.
Such were their struggles up front, Spain had been playing without a striker at times, relying on their midfielders to score goals, with Cesc Fabregas, Xabi Alonso and David Silva all getting on the scoresheet during the tournament.
Coming up against an Italian defence containing Leonardo Bonucci, Andrea Barzagli and Giorgio Chiellini, with Gianluigi Buffon to back them up in goal, it seemed as though Spain would need more in the final third if they were going to come out on top.
The two teams had met in the group stages, with the game ending 1-1. There was nothing to separate the sides then; why should this match pan out differently?
As the day of the final arrived, Vicente del Bosque opted to leave out Torres and Negredo, instead selecting six midfielders in Sergio Busquets, Alonso, Xavi, Iniesta, Silva and Fabregas. It was a bold move from the veteran manager. Would it work?
We did not have to wait long to find out. Inside 14 minutes, the latter four players combined to give Spain the lead. Xavi picked the ball up and fed Iniesta, who spotted the smallest of gaps and slipped the ball into the path of Fabregas who had crept behind Chiellini. Fabregas still had work to do but before Chiellini could recover his position, he fired the ball across goal for Silva to head home from close range.
If that goal was good, the second may have been even better. It started from the back, as Iker Casillas played a long pass towards the left flank. The ball was knocked down to Jordi Alba, who tucked the ball inside to Xavi and continued his run.
After briefly scanning the pitch, Xavi moved forwards with the ball as Alba sprinted past him and Italy’s defence backed off. Big mistake. Xavi waited until the opportune moment, before delivering a defence-splitting pass into the feet of Alba. He took one touch to control the ball and then calmly stroked the ball past Buffon.
Spain were 2-0 up and any worries about how they were going to score goals without any strikers had faded away.
Italy looked shell-shocked, and Cesare Prandelli had some big decisions to make. Having had to replace Chiellini midway through the first half due to injury, he threw on Antonio Di Natale at half time and Thiago Motta shortly after the interval.
The latter move backfired, as Motta almost instantly tweaked his hamstring, leaving Italy to play the final 30 minutes with 10 men. Fortune was favouring Spain, but they hardly needed it. They were at their dominant best and were not going to be stopped no matter how many players were on the pitch.
The second half quickly became a procession. Italy chased shadows, while Spain kept the ball with remarkable ease. With a third successive tournament win in the bag, Del Bosque handed Torres a run-out for the final 15 minutes. Nine minutes later, he latched onto another Xavi through ball to add Spain’s third, coolly slotting the ball into the bottom corner.
That goal seemed to restore Torres’ confidence, as he made another run in behind with two minutes to go and was found by Busquets’ pass. Spotting that fellow substitute, Juan Mata, was in a better position to score, Torres flicked the ball into the diminutive midfielder’s path and he swept the ball into the unguarded net.
Italy needed the final whistle to bring an end to their miserable evening, and mercifully it arrived shortly after Spain’s fourth goal.
Reflecting on the match, Iniesta said: “I think it’s one of the national team’s greatest games”. He was being typically modest. This was one of the greatest performances that had ever been produced on the international stage by any side, a display that had been a joy to watch from start to finish.
It was the perfect way for Spain to cap off a golden period in their history.News Now - Sport News