The entire world, save for 60 million screaming Italians were expecting to see the unbeaten German football team face the Spanish world champions in the final of the European championship in Kiev. Instead the final will feature this incredible upstart Italian team, led by midfield genius Andrea Pirlo, and explosive twenty one year old striker, super Mario Balotelli, who were able to speed by the astonished Germans like a red Ferrari dashing by a sputtering diesel Mercedes.
The Italians reminded me of the team that beat us at the World Cup in Spain in 1982, tough in the back, and explosive in offense. The two finalists met already in the first game of group C, which resulted in a 1-1 tie, in one of the best games of the tournament. Incredibly, the Italian midfield matched the Spanish for possession in what many were expecting to be a one sided match between the Italians world champions in 2006, and the current world and European champions.
Instead the Italians looked lively and dangerous, while the Spanish did not seem unbeatable for once. The final will give us an even better game. Big tournament finals are tense, tight affairs, where each tired and hurting player has to lift his game to levels of excellence never reached before.
That said many of the Italian players, from teams like Juventus, Udinese, Roma and Man City, who didn’t play the Champions League all the way, seem fresher than the weary Spanish champions whose season never seems to end.
Spain has limped into this final on its defense. The Spanish have only allowed one goal to the Italians in the first game and have scored 8, although 4 with Ireland. Against Portugal, Ramos and Co were able to contain Cristiano Ronaldo, who did not take advantage of the few chances he had. The Spanish forward line, were not able to pierce the rugged Portuguese defense either.
Coach Vicente del Bosque will probably start midfield Fabregas up front, instead of disappointing Negredo or Fernando Torres. The Spanish midfield has been running on gas fumes as Iniesta, Xavi, Busquets, Silva and possibly Pedro try to conjure up one more display of mastery. However, for once, they will be facing an excellent Italian midfield line led by tournament MVP Andrea Pirlo, talented Montolivo, hard fighting De Rossi and Marchisio.
They will be able to match the Spanish man for man, as they did when they overran the Germans Khedira, Ozil and Schweinsteiger much to everybody's surprise. To counter them Del Bosque will want to send Pedro down the wing to duet with Xavi, Iniesta and Fabregas. In the back line Del Bosque can count on goalie Saint Iker Casillas, who saved the team against Croatia, Xabi Alonso, Pique, Arbeloa, and fantastic Sergio Ramos in defense, with Jordi Alba assisting Iniesta on the wing.
Spain will try to slow the tempo, keep the ball, pass it around, and look for one or two chances to score like they did with France. It’s a successful tactic that has given them a World Cup, a European championship, and gotten them to this final.
Italy has had an astonishing transformation. Eliminated in the first round at the World Cup in South Africa, Prandelli took a national team that
looked weak and confused. He relied his construction on three 2006 world champions, captain and proven goalie Gianluigi Buffon, midfield genius Andrea Pirlo, and Roma's tough defensive midfielder De Rossi. Around them he put the Juventus defense with Chiellini, Bonucci, and Barzagli flanked by right defender Balzaretti. Italy started the tournament with three in the back, but Prandelli soon opted for a line of four defenders which proved safer.
Gigi Buffon is the leader of this Italian defense yelling orders from his goal line. In midfield, Prandelli has given free rein to Andrea Pirlo, who against England and Germany picked them apart, passing an incredible 100 times accurately from 60 yards and more. To make sure Italy
had other options, Prandelli brought in Montolivo, feisty Marchisio, De Rossi, and Bologna's Diamanti as a sub. All of these players are ball
handlers, all know how to find the strikers, and how to defend. The Italians created at least five clear chances against Germany, and scored
two. They had done the same to England, but their forwards didn’t find the net.
Against Germany a world star striker emerged in the form of Mario Balotelli. Nobody doubted his ability or size, but many criticized his maturity. Against Germany, Super Mario demonstrated that he has arrived on the World stage. Served by a brilliant pass by Cassano he scored with his
head. Served by a 50 yard pass by Montolivo he beat German Captain Lahm, to score a terrifying goal of power and accuracy. At last Italy has found a true striker. What a difference a goal scorer can make!
Who wins control of the midfield will win this game. For once the Spanish team look beatable, as the Italians are feeling confident and inspired. But don’t discount the pride of world champion players like Iniesta, Casillas, Xabi Alonso, Xavi, Ramos and their desire to win an unprecedented third national tournament in a row. As is fitting, the teams that have played the best football in the tournament have reached the final in Kiev. Now only one game is left. May the best team win.