Tiring Spain still have some fight left


ANALYSIS:Opening draw against the holders was a watershed for Cesare Prandelli’s Italy, writes BRIAN KERR

WHEN TALKING to business people about leadership I always add a cautionary note; wait before discarding the wayward or unconventional employee who, on occasion, delivers better than anyone else, but always frustrates with their laziness or antics.

Overlook their petulance and immaturity, or general lunacy, especially if you know there is something special bubbling beneath the surface.

It’s a conundrum in all walks of life. At what stage do you give up on a wayward genius? Lord knows the patient Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini was pushed to his very limits.

So too, I am sure, was Cesare Prandelli. But at this very moment, on the eve of Italy’s first European title since 1968, he is a master tactician.

He was even abused by Mario Balotelli after the acrobatic goal against Ireland. Thankfully, Leonardo Bonucci managed to get a hand over the young striker’s jabbering mouth.

The coach persevered because he knew there could be a massive pay-off. But it was a massive risk. Rarely have I seen a coach rewarded in the manner Prandelli was by Balotelli last Thursday night. They were two wonderfully taken goals from the non-conforming, undisciplined one.

I’ve coached the odd character like him at club level. Nobody as stone mad as Balotelli, mind. None of them ever managed to set fire to their own house. But I have often had a fella so infuriating that people within the club told me to kick him out the door.

I’d say: ‘No. Let’s stick with him. You can see the obvious reward if he’s minded.’

Paul Osam used to leave me fuming; he’d miss training, always something wrong with him, but you would get some brilliant performances out of Paul when they were really needed.

Prandelli would be asked countless times in recent weeks, ‘How do you put up with him?’ He can forever point to the tip of the spear that gutted Germany.

Before Thursday, Balotelli’s contributions in the tournament had been sporadic, but Prandelli’s masterful handling of Italy’s youngest player displays a serious talent in man management.

The coach and his team went into the tournament under a dark cloud but, as is the Italian way, they have been galvanised by the match-fixing allegations.

It started as it ends. Against Spain.

Achieving a 1-1 draw with the defending champions in the first match initiated a momentum that has deservedly carried them to the final.

That game was undoubtedly the watershed.

I have watched them closely during qualification, playing them twice as Faroe Islands coach, and that performance against Spain surpassed anything seen by the Azzurri since they were knocked out of Euro 2008 on penalties.

A watershed moment in the history of Italian football.

Prandelli deserves massive credit for switching from 4-4-2 to 3-5-2 to counter the mesmeric tiki-taka passing game. It worked because Daniele De Rossi was employed as an extra centre back along with Bonucci and Chiellini.

De Rossi’s aggressive defending spread throughout the team, working as an antidote to the potential for this Italy side to self- destruct (like at the 2010 World Cup).

They stuck with the unconventional formation for Croatia, gathering another useful point, before reverting to their diamond shaped midfield for three victories over Ireland, England and Germany.

So what will Cesare do this time? Confidence has soared on the back of consistently structured performances by the 19 different players used by the coach.

In contrast, Vicente del Bosque has largely relied on 12 players, with those outside the reliables only used sparingly. Granted, he turned to Negredo, then Jesus Navas and Pedro against Portugal.

The progress of Andrea Barzagli, I feel, means there is no need to drop De Rossi into defence again. He is too valuable in midfield.

As much as Pirlo has been the outstanding figure in their progress, De Rossi is just as important. His long passing to the wings was the route to dangerous counter-attacking via diagonal balls. I expect the Italians to be on the back foot for long periods. Cassano on the left, with Di Natale arriving later on, and Maggio attacking from right back can exploit the open spaces behind Arbeloa and Alba.

All off the primary distribution of De Rossi and Pirlo comes in front of the defence. Spain are expecting 3-5-2 but the return to the Italian diamond looked so convincing against Germany, factored with Spain’s stuttering form, may prompt Prandelli to attempt the double bluff.

I think Torres will get the nod from del Bosque simply due to the trouble he caused when coming off the bench in the first game.

Those runs in behind the Italian defence should have resulted in victory.

It was the Spanish answer to the rough challenges coming in on their petite midfielders. Expect more of the same bullying numbers around the Spanish man in possession again this time.

I also think Fabregas should start over a jaded-looking David Villa.

Spain looked a tired team in general up until extra-time against Portugal.

They collectively realised the perils of penalties and went up a gear. It was wonderful to see a great team rage against the dying of the light.

But Xavi and Xabi Alonso do seem to have heavy legs.

It’s a desire to enhance their already assured place among the great teams that drives them on.

They are vulnerable now. Portugal, Croatia and Italy have shown this. They only leave three at the back – only Busquets, Ramos and Pique are at home when faced by counter attacks. And they have to defend set-pieces with too many small men.

But somehow, they haven’t conceded a goal since Di Natale’s strike in the first game.

I just hope it isn’t decided by a penalty shoot-out. We deserve better from this classical clash of the traditional defensive masters and the consistent attacking wizards.

Maybe Mario will continue to confound the many detractors, up until the semi-final, and just maybe make this his tournament.

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