Initially we got a little excited about Polish grit, surprised by the Danish impact, endeared to a sprightly Ukraine and lived in denial of Irelands opening performance; or lack there of.
Then reality bit and but for a deflated and flat Holland and a Russian team who led us down the garden path and into a brick wall, the expected unfolded in terms of group qualification.
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Came the quarterfinals and departed the weak. The Czech Republic somehow only lost by one, the Greeks conceded four yet scored two without ever seeming to leave their own half, France packed their bags home and then went out to play Spain and England hung on to lose on penalties; the lottery of penalties never appearing to produce a fairer result.
The semi finals brought a damp squib and a Romanesque beast. Portugal brought it to the Spanish and exposed weary limbs but ultimately, still, didn’t have enough. Mario Balotelli came to the fore. Clever, powerful, quick and ultimately struck a pose that would make Russell Crowes Gladiator wince. Yes, we were entertained.
And now we’re here, the final in The Olympic Stadium in Kiev. Being a smaller pool then the World Cup it’s not a huge surprise when two teams meet once and then once more. A repeat on Sunday Evening of the Group C opener in Gdansk between the two sides would be roundly welcomed, at least from a neutrals perspective. Spain were lethargic at times and Italy could live with them. Andrea Pirlo setting up substitute Antonio Di Natale only for Cesc Fabregas to equalise four minutes later.
Spain finished strongly with Fernando Torres missing three good chances. But the roots of the criticism of Spain lay in this performance. The most fluid attack spear headed by whichever midfielder fancied moonlighting as a striker. The foundation for Italy’s performances also lay here.
Pirlo with patience and precision laying the solid base on which his countrymen grew. The midfielder was injured and only played 45 minutes in South Africa in 2010 and at the end of the following season was released by AC Milan. At 33 though, after inspiring Juventus to Scudetto glory, he has given a master class in intelligent, majestic simplicity.
Spain have a few masters themselves. Anders Iniesta, Xavi, Busquets. At times the Spanish Midfield look ridiculously comfortable. Unsettling this balanced utopia in midfield is difficult to achieve but Italy lived with them previously and Portugal punched a few holes of doubt. Tiredness, over-elaboration and predictability are some of the criticisms being aimed in their direction. But despite all that they take to the field tomorrow evening as favourites.
Injuries are not of huge concern tired and sore bodies will gear themselves up and be carried though on momentum and adrenaline. The biggest question is will Vincente Del Bosque tinker with his selection again. It is unlikely Torres will play from the beginning and Negredo did not sufficiently impress in Donetsk to warrant another start. It is possible that penalty hero Fabregas will be the 6th midfielder, come unorthodox striker.
Italy will again be likely to stick with the same system of players. Balotelli unlikely to be usurped by the ever green Di Natale and with Giorgio Chiellini back to fitness and to his defensively solid best he will start behind a midfield anchored by Pirlo.
The Final of a major tournament like this can be anti-climatic. A warm night, nerves and pressure can subdue the occasion. But let’s hope the opposite is true, that finesse and grace and passion will overcome.
The game should be tight and the likelihood of one team pulling away from the other as Italy did against Germany is unlikely.
Spain started the tournaments as favourites. Italy didn’t. Spain have played to their strengths and maintained the status quo with regard to their place in football. Italy were a team that Ireland thought were beatable, that domestic corruption threatened to tear apart but they are the team that have grown and flourished and they are the team many have fallen for.
Prediction: Italy 1 – 0 Spain