By Paul Gardner
For tomorrow's Euro final in Kiev, we get a reprise -- Spain-Italy. We saw them play each other exactly three weeks ago, at the beginning of the tournament, and they gave us a cautious, exploratory sort of game that finished 1-1. Two teams that surely sensed the likelihood that this wasn't for real, that the meaningful game would likely come later in the tournament. So the 1-1 tie was the perfect result for Group C's two best teams, one that eased the way for both of them to advance.
Looking back on that not wildly exciting game, one can only hope that there will be more life in tomorrow’s game. Of course, there should be. This is the final -- the no-tomorrow game, so no need to be disguising anything, holding anything back.
Continuing that absurdly naive mode of thinking, then, we should see two teams committed to attack and goalscoring right from the start. And how likely is that? Forget it. Take a look at the two teams’ defensive records, for a start. In five games, Italy has conceded only three goals. Spain has conceded only one (but that one was to Italy).
At the other end, Spain has scored eight goals, Italy six. But those scoring stats are not as encouraging as they seem, because four of Spain’s goals, and two of Italy’s, were scored against the Republic of Ireland, by far the weakest team of the tournament. Take away those Ireland games and their goals, and both Spain and Italy have four goals each. Exactly one per game.
Stat-wise, then, this does not look promising. A 1-1 tie, with the odds shading Spain (because of Italy’s inferior defensive record) as the more likely to get a winning goal. Or we get the embarrassment of yet another major title being decided by the fatuous shootout.
Enough with the stats. For a start: who has ever thought to vote against the Italians because of inferior defensive play? The mere idea is ludicrous. The Italians have, for as long as I can remember, been the master-defenders. Eventually, and probably inevitably, they overdid it by coming up with the infamous catenaccio formation. Which, whatever the criticisms, worked for a while -- as put into practice by the Inter team of the 1960s, il grande Inter. But, Inter aside, catenaccio was a bore to watch, a blight on the game.
Catenaccio met its match, and how, when Pele and his rampaging Brazilians ripped it to shreds in the 1970 World Cup final. It faded slowly, but nobody plays catenaccio any more. Well, maybe. The defensive disciplines necessary for that formation -- and they were many and rigid -- seem to have sunk deep into the mentality of the Italian game. Watching the key defensive figures of Italian teams in the 1960s and later -- I’m thinking of players like Sandro Salvadore, Armando Picchi, Roberto Rosato, Giacinto Facchetti, Gaetano Scirea, Fabio Cannavaro -- always gave the satisfaction of watching master craftsmen at work. Plus the irritation of seeing their skills employed in such a restricted way.
That ability to put on the field highly skilled and tactically canny defenders remains a major strength of the Italian game. It was on view in the semifinal win over Germany. Not quite what it used to be, maybe. There were moments of what can only be described as panic in the Italian defense as the Germans piled on the pressure -- and I don’t recall panic as a part of my catenaccio memories, but maybe I’m looking back a bit too rosily. But on the whole, the Italian defense coped comfortably with the Germans (who departed the tournament as the highest scoring team, averaging two goals per game).
What coach Cesare Prandelli has done, if not to perfection then certainly with a deft touch, is to allow those defensive skills to find an outlet, to allow them to have an influence in midfield.
The standard problem for defensive formations is transition. How to convert, quickly, defense into attack. Catenaccio “solved” this with sudden, super-accurate long balls played out to speedy wingers -- but not many teams could manage that. A more likely method is the long hopeful ball played up to a lone forward. Which usually gets gobbled up by defenders and played straight back.
As we saw against Germany, when the ball is played forward by Italian defenders (not booted, but passed) the target is not a forward, but midfielder Andrea Pirlo, who seemed immediately able to calm things down and to switch intelligently to attack -- with not one, but two crafty forwards, Mario Balotelli and Antonio Cassano, ahead of him.
If the Italian defenders look composed, which they do, there is a reason for that. Goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon and backs Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli are all Juventus teammates. Familiarity breeds comfort.
Spain -- in theory at least -- we know a lot more about. Because we have seen this Spanish team, with only a few changes, come to dominate the world game over the past four years. We’ve had plenty of time to study and analyze exactly what it is that makes Spain a great team. And make no mistake, this is a great team, a team playing superb soccer with a winning record that puts it within one game of doing what no other team has ever done - winning three consecutive major titles.
When we watch Spain, we see a game based on possession and quick, on-the-ground passing. We see the diminutive midfielders Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez and David Silva displaying their extraordinary skills of ball control, vision and accurate passing to maintain possession. Possession that keeps the pressure on opponents, and takes it off the Spanish defense.
Three of the defenders, including goalkeeper (and captain) Iker Casillas, are from Real Madrid. The midfield duo, Xavi and Iniesta, both play for Barcelona, so there is, as with Italy, a club-solidity in key areas.
But while Prandelli has kept faith with his up-front duo of Balotelli and Cassano (Balotelli did not start against Ireland, but came on to score a late goal), Spain’s Vicente Del Bosque has had to cope with what almost looks like an emergency. The lack of a reliable goalscoring forward. Fernando Torres is there, but still, inexplicably, lacks the confident touch he so wonderfully had in this tournament four years ago (when he scored the winner in the final against Germany). There are two other forwards on the Spanish roster - Alvaro Negredo, who played, ineffectually, against Portugal, and Fernando Llorente, who has yet to see any action.
So far, only two of Spain’s eight goals have come from those forwards - Torres got them both, but they came against the feeble Ireland. For the crucial semifinal against Portugal, del Bosque switched - without success - to Negredo. In the previous game, the quarterfinal against France, Spain took the field without a forward at all, and got both of its goals from midfielder Xabi Alonso.
For Spain there is another problem: The price to be paid for success. A consensus has formed that the only way to beat Spain is to play a packed defense, and hope to steal a goal on the break. There’s a familiar sound to that -- as though catenaccio has returned, but only to be used when playing Spain.
The Spanish must by now be used to this. They have been forced to add another priceless talent to their game -- that of patience, of being able to hold off frustration. Their important games now tend to finish in 1-0 victories -- games featuring long bouts of Spanish possession and slick passing, but with no end result. So the Spanish are called boring, their tiki-taka short-passing game has been dubbed tiki-takenaccio, an attempt to make out that it is Spain, rather than its cautious opponents, that is upping the boredom factor.
The big irony of this final is that if there is one team around that will not employ catenaccio tactics against Spain, it is Italy. Prandelli has moved the Azzurri on, using the masterly defensive skills as a true basis for attacking play, relayed through the remarkable (and lest it be forgotten, 33-year-old) Pirlo, up to two explosive but difficult-to-discipline forwards.
Spain now know all about the crucial role of Pirlo. They are unlikely to make the mistake that Germany made, of allowing him to hang around, unmolested, waiting for those passes out of defense. If Spain can reduce Pirlo to ineffectiveness, it will have taken the heart out of Italy’s game. But Spain has then to find a way to score -- playing without a regular forward (which seems likely) and against the world’s best defenders.
I’ll admit that this all sounds “intriguing” in the statistical sense, “fascinating” if tactical chess games appeal to you. But these are hardly matters to fire much excitement. We’re looking at a scenario that is likely to be short on goals. At a final that is likely to be decided by a single goal. There is also to be considered the disturbing fact that both teams are captained by their goalkeepers, a clear indication of the dominant role that defense plays these days.
Well, I’m writing that with deliberate malice, hoping that I’m getting it wildly wrong, hoping that soccer will, once again, rise up and make a mockery of all the omens and likelihoods, and give us -- for the first time in quite a while -- a final worthy of the occasion. That means goalscoring. And it rules out the appalling unworthy farce of a shootout ending.