Spain start with Silva and end with gold

Mon, Jul 2, 2012, 01:00

SOCCER:HATS OFF to the Spanish. The reigning World and European Champions last night in Kiev wrote another glorious chapter in their recent history, lifting their third consecutive title in four years when beating Italy 4-0 with an emphatic, stylish and, in the end, utterly dominant performance.

Those of us who thought that this might be a tournament too for Spain were proved comprehensively wrong last night as the Spanish raised their game for by far their best performance of the finals.

By comparison with some of their stuttering efforts on the way to the final, in particular their penalty shoot-out semi-final win over Portugal, the Spanish last night made it look disarmingly easy.

Opponents Italy, who to some extent have been the revelation of this tournament, never really got into the shake-up in the game, with Spain 1-0 up after a quarter of an hour, thanks to a brilliantly worked goal, scored by David Silva.

Italy appeared to recover well from that disastrous start, playing good football for the next 20 minutes, but a second Spanish goal from left back Jordi Alba, taken on the counter-attack just before half time, basically finished off the contest.

Long before substitutes Fernando Torres and Juan Mata scored Spain’s third and fourth goals in the last five minutes, the game had ceased to be a contest, such was the Spanish dominance.

It had always seemed possible that this great side, despite often looking less that its normally fluent self over the last month, might still have one last hurrah, one great performance in its baggage.

So it was last night when their play seemed more urgent and more direct than their normal “tiki taka”, close passing game with which they so often wear out opponents.

Italy were struggling almost from the kick-off to contain a Spanish side which, with the wisdom of tournament experience, had obviously left something in the tank for this great night.

Just take Xavi Hernandez, ranked by some critics as one of the “flops” of the tournament thus far. Last night, he and Andres Iniesta weaved their usual, dominant midfield tapesty, with the “flop” Xavi setting up Alba for the vital second goal with a perfect through ball into the Italian penalty area.

So the Spanish remain firmly on their World and European pedestal. Given the quality of their play last night, it would seem that only the passing of the years will finally defeat this excellent side.

It is indicative of the impact that they have had on world football over the last four years that when last night’s defeated coach, Cesare Prandelli, took over Italy two years ago, he suggested that his side should take the “Spanish School” as the ultimate role model on the road to playing “good football”.

Spain, too, can reflect that their wonderful four years of world domination has continued on where it started, namely with Italy.

Spain’s quarter-final, penalty shoot-out win over Italy in Vienna in these championships four years ago was arguably a turning point in their history.

The Spanish went on from that win, against the then reigning World Champions, to win not only that tournament but also the 2010 World Cup, in the process playing some splendid football.

More importantly, however, the fabulous four years of Spanish football at international level has been paralleled by an equally fabulous period at club level when Barcelona have regularly played the elite of Europe off the park.

When Barcelona untypically stuttered in the Champions League this spring, there were many who wondered if, just perhaps, this great Spanish cycle was coming to an end. We need not have worried.

In winning last night, Spain also defied a poor track record against the Italians, who were playing in their eighth World or European final. Until last night, in 11 competitive games against Italy since 1920, Spain had only managed two wins.

Few football “schools” – perhaps the Hungary of Puskas in the 1950s or the Brazil of Pele in the 1970s – have proved as dominant as the current Spanish school.

Then, too, whilst historical precedents are oriented around a Puskas or a Pele, this side, in the words of beaten Italian coach Prandelli, is a team that does not need a central target man in attack. Their real attacking genius is the collective strength of an entire squad that “attacks the empty spaces” like few othes, says Prandelli. He has a point.

As for the Italians, their apparent ability to apparently turn a serious football scandal back home into tournament winning motivation finally came to an end. The Italians, down to 10 men for the last half hour, were emphatically beaten last night but Euro 2012 has not been a disappointment for them. Given the quality of the football they played on the way to the final, Prandelli’s team could have a serious future, with or without Prandelli.

That is for the future. For now, sit back and bask in the glory of a truly superb football machine. We may not see its like again for some time.

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