Prior to the start of Euro 2012 few would have fancied the current Italy side to qualify from a tough group, let alone reach the final. Many argued that Italy were still a side in transition under Cesare Prandelli and would face a thorough examination in a group featuring Croatia and Spain. Yet another investigation into match fixing in Serie A had also just begun leaving little room for optimism in the average Italian. However, events in the last few weeks have been nothing short of extraordinary.
Since Prandelli was selected to lead the national team he has advocated a style of football differing to that of his predecessors. Italian football had been stereotyped as defensive and dull, perhaps a legacy of Helenio Herrera’s Inter side of the 1960’s and his ‘catenaccio’ tactics. Prandelli has done his utmost to dispel this and it seems as though he is finally succeeding. His focus remains defensive but a greater emphasis has been put on attack. This has been seen at Euro 2012 through the use of faster counter-attacks and raiding full backs.
Prandelli may have had a direct influence upon the team but is not to be seen as the only man responsible for Italy’s success. Antiono Conte has also played his part in their run to the final. Conte guided Juventus to the title without losing once and also helped to unearth the backbone of the current Italian side.
There are seven Juventus players in the squad who will have certainly carried the spirit and momentum of the ‘invincible’ into Euro 2012. Gianluigi Buffon is a veteran but his experience and presence have been invaluable. Giorgio Chiellini is also part of the imposing Juventus backline along with Andrea Barzagli and Leonardo Bonucci. Conte has aided the improvement of Claudio Marchisio and overseen Emmanuelle Giacherrini’s rise from the fourth division to the national team. His greatest feat though, must be resurrecting the career of Andrea Pirlo.
Pirlo has had a magnificent tournament and his importance to this Italian side cannot be underestimated. He brings an aura of calmness and confidence to a midfield packed with more robust individuals such as Daniele De Rossi, Antonio Nocerino and Thiago Motta. His ability on the ball has been unrivalled and his passing range exquisite. Moreover, his best performances have come in the quarter and semi-finals where he controlled the games.
Many predicted a difficult group for Italy when in truth; it was routine if not spectacular. An encouraging draw with Spain was followed by another draw against Croatia and a comfortable victory over Ireland to secure a place in the quarterfinals. This was followed by an epic penalty shootout victory over England and an impressive win against the much-fancied Germans.
Prandelli must once again be mentioned when studying the Italians’ passage to the final. Firstly, he proved a shrewd tactician. This was exemplified mainly against Spain and Germany where his planning and set up for the games was excellent. Against Spain he knew how to nullify their array of attacking talent, and against Germany he provided defensive solidity although not at the expense of attacking creativity.
David Moyes was one of many to praise Prandelli and his understanding of the game. Moyes highlighted Prandelli’s unorthodox thinking aimed at drawing the opposition from their comfort zone. He also stated his ambition, work ethic and forward thinking ideas were a major factor in Italy’s progress so far in the tournament. Moyes is, of course, no stranger to Prandelli having faced his Fiorentina side in the past and is able to provide an objective analysis of him as a coach.
His ability to control his squad has been equally as impressive as his tactics. Managing 23 internationals is never an easy task, especially with a certain Mario Balotelli in the squad. Prandelli, though, has coped admirably. He made a big decision to start Giaccherini against Spain for his international debut, a decision that paid off. He also dropped Balotelli against Ireland but brought him on to seal the game with one of the goals of the tournament. In short, he has made the right decision at the right time ensuring an upbeat mood throughout the squad.
Italy have also managed to dispel old myths in reaching this Sunday’s final. Glaring evidence of this comes from their defeat of Germany despite having 48 hours less rest and having played extra time against England. Many had the Azzurri written off against the Germans with a lack of fitness one reason for their inferiority. One could barely notice a difference in fitness between the sides and, if anything, it was Italy who looked sharper in the semi-final. The conditioning may have played a part were the game to go to extra time but Italy’s players were sprightly enough to ensure the match was won within regulation time courtesy of Mario Balotelli.
Balotelli also warrants a mention but for his on-field efforts rather than his private life. He arrived at Euro 2012 following a love-hate relationship with Roberto Mancini and his inadequacies were the main talking points. Overall he has been vital to Italy’s success. Firstly, he has let the spotlight shine on him allowing pressure to be relieved on other players and secondly, he has put in some colossal performances, none more so than against England and Germany. He is now an integral part of the side and an invaluable asset for Sunday’s clash.
Whether Italy will have enough to overcome one final hurdle and defeat the reigning world and European champions, Spain, remains to be seen. La Roja could make history by being the first side ever to win three consecutive international tournaments while Italy could signal their return amongst the world’s elite.
The Spanish have not been at their scintillating best of 2008 or even 2010. They remain supremely gifted individuals with wonderful skill, technique and ability along with being determined to implement their unique philosophy. For all their talent, they are not exempt from problems. The absence of captain Carles Puyol and talismanic striker David Villa mean that Spain have been far from impressive at Euro 2012. Villa’s absence has hurt in particular due to the lack of form of any other striker in their squad. Alvaro Negredo and Roberto Soldado are unproven at this level and Fernando Torres’ struggles have been highly documented.
Their passage to the final has included routine wins over Ireland, Croatia and France. They needed the aid of penalties to beat Portugal in the semi-final despite being hugely disappointing for the majority of the game and the lack of a classic striker was shown in their inability to convert chances.
The Italian camp has been surprisingly quiet ahead of the final, with the silence even extending to Balotelli who replied “Ask me on Sunday” when asked about Italy’s chances. Their team spirit, hunger and brilliance of Pirlo should help them prevail and end Spain’s reign in a poignant manner. Before the tournament Prandelli said he would be happy to withdraw from Euro 2012 if necessary amid the match fixing investigation. He may just consider himself lucky no such measures were taken come Sunday night in Kiev.
By Djordje Jajcanin