Game 5 of Euro 2012 pitted Spain against Italy in one of the premier first round matchups. Spain was heavily favored and not much was expected of Italy as the Azzurri into the tournament on the back of a a match fixing scandal, a 3-0 loss to Russia in a lead up friendly to the tournament and their left back sent home for potential complicity in match fixing. Meanwhile, Spain had a few questions – mainly where would goals come from with Villa out injured and Torres in the worst slump of his career and how would the central pairing of Pique and Ramos fare without veteran Puyol to steady the ship. I predicted a narrow Spain victory. Instead, it was a dynamic, unafraid Italy that gave Spain all it could handle and the match ended up a 1-1 draw.
Fast forward a couple of weeks and you have an Italian team that seems like more the team of destiny than a Spanish squad that is trying to pull off an unprecedented back-to-back title winning effort of Euro 2008-World Cup 2010-Euro 2012. Only Germany and France have ever done a back to back. Can this team be the greatest European team of all time?
This is a close call. If Germany had made it, I would have predicted a German victory with relative confidence. However, tomorrow will be very tight. Here’s a stone cold lock of a prediction – a goalkeeper will be lifting the European Cup tomorrow! Let’s consider the relevant factors.
Momentum: Italy has reason to feel that this is their time. No one counted them amongst even the top 6 teams coming into the tournament, yet they have not been overmatched in any of their five matches at Euro 2012 and have all the confidence following their startling dismantling of Germany in the semi finals. They seem like the team of destiny. Meanwhile, Spain has not played their best and has been criticized for not being totally convincing in their march to the final. Edge: Italy
Fatigue: Everyone assumed that Italy would be dead on their legs against Germany after having played extra time against England and having two less days of rest. Instead they dominated Germany. Spain have one extra day of rest. However, they did play extra time and won on an emotionally draining penalty kick shootout. Edge: Even
History: Italy hasn’t lost to Spain in a major tournament. However, Spain did beat Italy in penalties at the last Euro (shootouts don’t count as “victories” as they are officially listed as draws). Edge: Even
Coaching: Prandelli has done a masterful job of changing lineups to adjust for injuries and opponents. He instituted a 3-5-2 in the first match to make up for Criscito’s pre-tournament suspension, with De Rossi playing in central defense. He then switched back to 4-4-2 to dominate possession against England. Meanwhile, Vicente del Bosque has struggled to find his best lineup and gone back and forth between utilizing no strikers and then putting in Torres and then Negredo with no real success. Edge: Italy
Spain Defense vs Italy Offense: Spain haven’t given up a goal since di Natale scored in their initial match up. It’s a Euro record. Pique and Ramo have been solid together and Jordi Alba’s pace and work rate have made him the revelation of Euro 2012 at left back. Casillas hasn’t been at this best, but you can’t argue with the shutout streak. Xabi and Busquets have done their usual job of protecting the back four. Spain is solid. That said, Cassano and Balotelli have given teams fits with Cassano in particular proving very hard to pick up and using his creativity to good effect. While Montelivo has become stronger as the tournament has progressed, Italy’s lack of good wide play should help Spain cover for Arbeloa’s lack of pace. Edge: Spain
Midfield: I presume Spain will start one striker or use Navas or Pedro instead of Silva or Cesc. If Spain starts six in midfield, they will dominate possession. I keep waiting for Pirlo’s lack of mobility to be exposed by a high tempo opposing midfield but it hasn’t happened yet. I think Spain can do that tomorrow. Xavi has had a poor tournament and that is the reason Spain is struggling to impose itself. If he doesn’t have a good game tomorrow, Spain will not be able to win this game. I expect Spain to finally put a good game together. Edge: Spain
Spain offense vs Italy defense: It’s hard to imagine anyone scoring 2 goals against Buffon. So, assuming Italy scores one as they have done all tournament long (except against England), the best Spain can hope for is the penalty kick shootout. Spain’s strikers have fared poorly, except for Torres’ double against Ireland. Meanwhile, Chiellini is back for Italy and Balzaretti has been impressive. Edge: Italy
Pre-game prediction: Spain 1 Italy 0
Fatigue finally catches up with Italy. They will not be able to replicate Portugal’s aggressive press or be able to attack at speed on the wing. Xavi finally awakes and Spain repeats as defending European champions. Espana Euro 2012 winners.