Italy's goose was cooked after just five minutes

Mon, Jul 2, 2012, 01:00

ANALYSIS:We just have to sit back and applaud this remarkable Spanish side

IT ONLY took five minutes. In those early exchanges I thought Italy would have a real go but once the Spaniards settled into a rhythm the game was up. It was their own incomparable rhythm.

And it took them just five minutes.

Beforehand, I was confident that Italy had a chance from the way Xavi and Xabi Alonso faded against Portugal. It seemed like a genuine chink in the armour of this great team. A hint that key members of the midfield six were tiring after long, distinguished careers. But after five minutes of shadow boxing their familiar tempo clicked into gear.

They were even better, snappier than their usual selves. We caught a glimpse of that relentless attacking majesty in extra-time against Portugal but it was unfurled for 90 minutes last night.

Xavi, the potential weakness, proved a key component in stopping Italy. To do so Andrea Pirlo had to be stymied. Xavi went straight after him, harrying him, forcing him to retreat just in front of the Italian centre backs.

Pirlo couldn’t even pass laterally, only backwards and Italy kicked long, allowing Spain to regather and come again. They couldn’t get him on the ball higher up the pitch. That was Italy’s only chance of winning this tournament.

Xavi or Cesc Fabregas were all over him. Xavi’s fingerprints were on both goals as well. They really did seize this moment to do what no other country has done before – win three major tournaments on the bounce. What an achievement.

The early goal by David Silva, ultimately, proved the undoing of Cesare Prandelli’s tactical plan. They went 4-4-2 last night. In the opening Pool game between the sides Italy earned a draw by lining up 3-5-2 with Daniele De Rossi wedged between the centre backs. It worked that night and against Croatia. They needed to score goals against the Republic of Ireland so they reverted to their traditional 4-4-2 with a diamond shaped midfield where everything flowed through Pirlo. De Rossi also returned to his more natural role.

It proved enough to beat an impressive, young German side, which was enough to convince Prandelli and the players to take on these mighty opponents in a less defensive manner. Such overconfidence proved their downfall. In their first meeting De Rossi gave Italy an extra body in defence but he was also able to pick players out on the counter. The protection was gone and no team can match Spain in this form.

At 1-0 they had nowhere to go. They had to attack with more abandon and Spain love nothing more than a team chasing a goal. It left space, which they can exploit better than any side I’ve ever seen. Corners or set pieces became Italy’s best chance of a goal.

But the control displayed in this final was immense. The Italian midfield – remember Pirlo hardly does anything besides spray it about — looked shattered by half-time. They also looked nervous on the ball as the smaller Spanish men hunted them down.

Silva also had his best game, finding new energy levels, with defensive industry to go with some magnificent movement off the ball.

We just have to sit back and applaud them all.

To think the rock at the heart of their defence, Carles Puyol, and the goal machine in South Africa two years ago, David Villa, were both ruled out by injury. Villa was the ideal player to have in the Fabregas role because of his goalscoring threat but Cesc had a fine tournament, winning it for them against Portugal.

Puyol was an important leader. He was also their only genuine aerial weapon from set-pieces. Sergio Ramos made us forget all about him though. He has been immense.

The most valuable contributor of all I believe was Iker Casillas. His save from Ivan Rakitic with two minutes to go in their last Pool match must be highlighted. If that went in they were going home. That’s how crucial their captain was. He makes so many important saves, like from Antonio di Natale when a goal would have made it 2-1 with plenty of time left.

Even coach Vicente Del Bosque got in on the act. He looks like a school teacher standing in the yard, so you know lunch time is nearing its conclusion, but then the ball rolled his way and he flicked it up, like Iniesta would do! He also showed humility by giving Juan Mata a run late on. Of course, he was rewarded with a goal.

By then Italy had lost Thiago Motta and no team should be made go up against the greatest team of all time with just 10 men.

Every type of system imaginable was put up against them. Nobody could break them.

Last night was the best I’ve ever seen them. It is second only to Barca destroying Man Utd in the 2010 Champions League final. Of course, so many of these players were in the orchestra that night as well. Wonderful.

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