Spain trample all over those boring jibes

Mon, Jul 2, 2012, 01:00

SOCCER: SPAIN 4 ITALY 0:IN THE end Spain were the best team in Euro 2012 by a considerable distance. They turned the final into a procession and, when they reflect on becoming the first nation to win three major tournaments in succession, the sense of jubilation should be greatly enhanced by this being the night when they were rewarded for having absolute conviction in their principles.

They never wavered in the face of great scrutiny and Vicente del Bosque’s formation, however unorthodox, proved ultimately to be based on real foundations, to the extent that it now feels faintly bizarre that a team of this brilliance could be accused of not playing with enough shine. Boring Spain? The debate is so ridiculous it really should be put in a box and kept in a place where we do not have to be subjected to it again.

The most grievous damage was inflicted inside the opening half, first when David Silva headed in Cesc Fábregas’s cross and then, four minutes before the interval, when Xavi Hernández sent Jordi Alba running clear. Italy have played with great charisma throughout this tournament but any hopes of a comeback were all but extinguished on the hour when Thiago Motta, their third substitute, went down with a hamstring injury and there was nobody left to bring on. A man down, Italy were always going to be vulnerable and Fernando Torres duly scored the third, in the process becoming the first player to score in two European Championship finals, before teeing up another substitute, Juan Mata, to complete the rout.

Italy will rue their bad luck but the truth is that Spain had signalled their superiority long before they had the extra man. More than anything, they played as though affronted by the suggestion that their football somehow lacked stardust. Once again Del Bosque had configured his team with no recognised striker.

It might not appeal to everyone but the simple truth is they are too refined, too devoted to the art of possession, to change for anyone. Del Bosque had listened to the criticism, all that drivel about this being a boring side, and decided not to budge an inch. Then his players set about reminding us why the real debate here is whether there has ever been a more devastatingly effective team.

The olés could be heard from the Spanish end of the Olympic Stadium inside the first five minutes. It was not that Italy were particularly poor, this was just a Spanish team filled with serial champions, all of whom wanted the ball and had the wit and football intelligence to do the right things with it. Italy had plenty of possession, too. Yet Spain played with the penetration, working those elaborate little passing triangles, then suddenly changing the pace of the game once they saw the opening.

The first goal was a case in point. Xavi was involved, almost inevitably. Andrés Iniesta, too. These two alone make it feel faintly preposterous that Spain could ever be condemned for alleged drudgery. Iniesta’s pass inside Italy’s left back, Giorgio Chiellini, was weighted beautifully. Fábregas had timed his run to get behind Chiellini and was quick enough to elude his opponent and drive into the penalty area.

Briefly there was the opportunity for him to shoot but the angle was tight and Gianluigi Buffon filled the goal. Fábregas took an extra touch and, from the byline, picked out Silva with his cross.

That touch from Fábregas had forced Buffon to come to his near post, leaving the rest of the goal exposed. The ball was coming at Silva at pace and an awkward height and, for all his many qualities, the Manchester City player is not known for his ability in the air. His was a twisting header, angled perfectly, and the ball was still rising as it went into the opposite corner.

By that stage Spain had already established the pattern of controlling play in the middle of the pitch. Their three more advanced players – Silva, Iniesta and Fábregas – could all interchange positions. Silva, in particular, was prominently involved, but everyone gets their go in this team. What also gets overlooked sometimes is the devilish way they work to get the ball back when they lose it. It is as if they are so aggrieved to have forfeited possession they cannot rest until they are back in control, knocking the ball around, left and right, long and short.

Italy’s attacking was more erratic and when Chiellini signalled to the bench that he could not continue, six minutes after the goal, there was the distinct impression that their first final since 2000 was already turning into an ordeal. Briefly, they rallied. Spain’s defence looked vulnerable to a couple of expertly taken corners from Andrea Pirlo. Daniele De Rossi fired in a shot at Iker Casillas and Mario Balotelli, from further out, put one over the crossbar.

But Spain had the extra quality. Xavi’s pass for Alba’s goal was sumptuous and suddenly the left back was sprinting clear. Alba had knocked the ball infield to Xavi in the first place and then continued his run, a converted winger with the pace and body swerve to take advantage of some generous defending. Alba has been one of the players of the tournament and his low, side-footed to beat Buffon epitomised the confidence with which he has shown.

Italy will reflect on two chances early in the second half for Antonio Di Natale, a half-time replacement for Antonio Cassano. In between they were lucky not to concede a penalty after Leonardo Bonucci’s arm blocked Sergio Ramos’s header. This was their one moment of good fortune. Motta had been on the pitch only four minutes when he over-reached for the ball and his hand instinctively reached for his hamstring. There was no way he could continue and that was pretty much it for Italy’s chances of a comeback.

After that, there was an air of inevitability about what followed. Once again, Xavi was the architect, picking up De Rossi’s misplaced pass and threading his ball into Torres’s path to bear down on Buffon and make it 3-0. Italy were crushed and, four minutes later, Torres was clear again, this time squaring his pass for Mata to add the final flourish and bring more olés.

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