01 July 2012

Spain 4-0 Italy

Fàbregas 14'
Alba 41'
Torres 84'
Mata 88'

The score line may flatter Spain, the by-product of Italy playing with 10 men for the last half an hour, but that's the only thing which flatters Spain. There will be effusive praise, but it's not exaggerated praise. This side deserves every superlative that will be thrown their way.

So much for a patient, protracted, drawn-out death by a thousand passes. The lesson of the day is that you might not want to give Spain any added motivation. "Boring? We'll show you boring."

Maybe Spain's earlier patience was more than just a defensive strategy. Resting with the ball is still resting. The fatigue on display against Portugal a few days ago certainly wasn't present today. Sticking with Del Bosque's preferred line-up, with Fàbregas as false nine with Iniesta and Silva roaming inside and out, Spain started furiously.

The front three constantly switched positions while Xavi poked and prodded, and the goal wasn't long in coming. A string of short passes to get defenders moving, Fàbregas charging in behind from the inside right channel, bombing behind Chiellini to receive Iniesta's through ball despite Pirlo's pressure, bisecting the center back and left back. Chiellini couldn't recover, Fàbregas burst to the byline, chipping a cross for the on-rushing Silva, brilliantly placed between retreating center-backs watching Fàbregas rather than the runner, a deftly-placed header from a 5'7" midfielder.

However, as we've come to expect from Prandelli's Italy, they responded, keeping possession. Chiellini's subsequent injury may have helped Italy, at least in the short-term. Balzaretti, unfairly left out after his excellent performance at right back against the Germans, is far better going forward, and his crosses troubled Spain, forcing Arbeloa to remain deep, requiring Silva to frequently help out in defense. Still, for all their improvement, Casillas was rarely tested; other than parrying Cassano's fierce blast from distance, Spain were most often threatened on set plays, where Casillas adequately, repeatedly punched clear while Ramos and Piqué contributed crucial clearing headers.

The Italians were arguably the better side when Spain struck again, another doctoral thesis in geometry. The StatsZone goal buildup shows a nine-pass move, but only four really matter, the first five simply a matter of keeping possession at the back, as Spain had competently done since taking the lead. Evidently, Spain can play route one football. A long ball from Casillas, Iniesta's chest down to Alba, to Xavi, to Alba. Xavi's pass to Alba was too good for words: perfectly-timed, immaculately angled. Alba barely had space to fit between Barzagli and Bonucci when bursting forward, but somehow Xavi minded the gap, holding until the perfect moment to catch Alba just onside. One-on-one with Buffon, the left-back coolly placed his shot around Italy's captain. Spain with a one-goal lead is almost always a death sentence. At 2-0, the warden's taking requests for your last meal.

Still, Italy showed flashes of being able to get back in the game after the restart, Prandelli showing typical proactivity with two quick changes in Di Natale and Motta for Cassano and Montolivo – substitutions we've seen in Italy's earlier matches because of Cassano and Montolivo usually lasting just an hour. Di Natale nearly scored Italy's best chance, just onside, but was denied by Casillas – as ever reliable the few times he's called upon. But then Motta pulled up lame in the 62nd, just six minutes after coming on. With Italy out of substitutions. Game well and truly over.

You have to admire Prandelli's chutzpah. He's restored this Italian side's belief, brought attacking flair to a country renowned – rightly and wrongly – for dour football. He's shown an adventurous willingness to adapt his side's formation to its available personnel and the opposition's. But starting Chiellini and bringing on Motta, both injured earlier in the tournament, were true riverboat gambles. And both went down in brilliant flames.

Spain is the last side you'd ever want to face with 10 men and a two-goal deficit. This was never going to be Chelsea against Barcelona, because of Italy's set-up and ethos, because of Spain's lead. Matches like this, against opposition like this, makes you yearn for a mercy rule. It certainly wasn't what Italy deserved.

Spain's final two goals were ambushes. The last two substitutes, Torres and Mata, scored with their first touches – Torres nine minutes after he came on, Mata barely more than a minute after. Torres was set up by Xavi's interception and immediate through ball, Mata by an unselfish, somehow onside Torres after Busquets' 30-yard pass rendered six Italian defenders irrelevant.

Prior to today's match @castrolfootball noted that just 28.3% of Spain's passes had been forward passes. It was 47.5% today, and that was after taking the foot off the gas in the final half an hour. That percentage was 51.7% until the first goal, 48.0% until the second, and 49.5% until Motta's injury. This was Spain at its most glorious, most rapacious – a fitting conclusion to its dominance during the last four years.

I've only been watching international football since Italia '90, so I've just seen Brazil in 1970, Holland in 1974, West Germany from 1972 to 1976 on videotape, have just read about 1954 Hungary. I still feel fairly safe asserting Spain are the best international side ever. Had they lost this game, we could have the debate. Winning this tournament, their third in succession, makes the debate moot. Some may have done it better, but no one's done it longer, and that's what makes this so indescribably impressive.

Spain didn't concede once – once! – in the 10 knock-out games beginning at Euro 2008. They conceded six in total during this stretch: to Italy in this tournament's first group game, to Chile and Switzerland in the World Cup 2010 group, and one in each of the three group games in Euro 2008. Six goals in 19 matches, never more than once in any. They were behind in exactly two of those matches, the earlier draw against Italy, behind for all of four minutes, and that fluke of flukes when losing to Switzerland in the first match at the 2010 World Cup. A loss which arguably propelled them to the title.

And Spain did this without Puyol and Villa, cornerstones of the last two tournaments. Players like Cazorla, Pedro, Torres, Mata, Negredo, Llorente, Javi Martínez, Valdes, and Reina rarely if ever started, if even featuring at all. There's an embarrassment of riches, and there's 'so rich you can piles millions and millions of dollars onto a bonfire just to stay warm.' Somehow, Vicente Del Bosque has found a way to manage this extraordinary squad, handling egos, keeping them hungry enough to follow success with more success. The first championship isn't the hardest. The second is. Then the third is. Most sides, no matter the sport, fall victim to what Pat Riley called "the disease of more." (Apologies for the article linked) This side has never looked like succumbing to that illness.

We will almost certainly never see this dominance in international football again. This has not been an era where Spain excelled because of others' weaknesses. Germany were impressive in all three tournaments; Italy were deserved finalists in this one. Portugal took Spain to the limit in 2010 and last week, both Russia and Italy tested Spain in Euro 2008. Any of those sides, or Holland or Uruguay at World Cup 2010, would have been worthy winners. But they ran into a Spanish freight train.

Seeing history marvelously rewritten seems an appropriate end to this excellent tournament.


Anonymous said...

"Matas 88"

not quite.

nate said...

Eh, if that's the only typo (which it probably isn't), that's better than usual.

dReXler said...

I weep! To think we once could lay claim to four players of the best team this century: Torres, Xabi, Arbeloa, Reina. What's more frightening is if Messi had opted to play for Spain as he's a Spanish citizen. They'd have steamrolled all before but Providence being good Argentina will have a chance, likewise Italy, Brazil, Uruguay, Holland and Germany. It's definitely set up for one of the most exciting World Cups we can witness. A more experienced German team hungering for success; a dutch and french side out to erase the wrongs of this tournament; an evolving Italian team; a Portuguese side that's finally threatening; a formidable Argentina with Messi at his peak and to top it all off, Brazil playing at home! England doesn't deserve their top 10 status by any stretch of the imagination.

Clint said...

Just for fun, how good would Xabi Alonso be in a Rodgers side?