After the month of June was spent with 16 teams fighting it out for the right to play on July 1st in the final, we find ourselves with a rematch of the very first Group C match from the beginning of the tournament on June 10th. That match ended in a draw, 1-1, with both teams looking a bit out of sorts compared to their current form after playing 5 matches in quick succession over the past few weeks. The pace of matches in this tournament has allowed the team chemistry to build, the managerial tactics to take shape, and of course the individual player confidence to grow in leaps and bounds.
Italy enter the match in stunning form, having dispatched tournament favorites Germany with an impressive Balotelli brace and typical Italian organization and effectiveness in the defensive and midfield lines. The dangerous partnership of Cassano and Balotelli has given this Italian side far more bite than most anticipated before the tournament began. The duo's ability to keep defenses distracted and fully occupied has opened up the game for the midfield players; most importantly Andrea Pirlo. At 33 years of age, Pirlo has been one of the stars, if not the star, of the tournament. His passing is creating danger as well as setting the tempo of almost every match he has played. He has been in the right place at the right time, clearing balls of the line when needed, and of course setting up goals from time to time as well with 2 assists in the competition thus far. His passing game has been nothing short of brilliant: 354 completed passes at a 77% completion rate with 7 out 22 crosses competed. The only other players to rival this, of course, will be on the other side of the pitch during the final. Xavi 1st, Xabi 2nd and Busquets 4th round out the top 4 in passing during this competition with Pirlo ranking 3rd.
The real questions will be; can Italy find their chances to score, and can Pirlo find his game at all if Spain do the expected and hog the ball? In the group stage match, Spain took the ball and held it for 60% possession. They also almost doubled the chances on target of their Italian counterparts. While Italy has Pirlo to dictate the midfield, Spain counter with Xavi, Xabi and Busquets, all three with statistics that rival Pirlo's in this competition. Xavi, having a rather quiet tournament for his standards has topped the passing charts as expected with 455 completed passes at a 85% completion rate! A full 100 passes more than Pirlo. He's also completed 9 of 29 crosses to top Pirlo's stats there as well. While the spectators have taken note of Pirlo's excellence, Xavi's has gone typically unnoticed and unappreciated primarily due to the fact that it's expected and everyone has become so accustomed to these Xavi performances. Xabi and Busquets have also completed more passes and at a higher completion rate than Pirlo, though both fall below Xavi's stratospheric numbers. The battle to control the match between Pirlo and Xavi should be an interesting sub plot within this match.
Passing is not everything though, as many have come to realize. Spain have mastered the passing game, but there is no question they have not been at their best in this tournament and they look somewhat vulnerable. It's strange to say this when they've only allowed a single goal in the entire competition, a goal that came in that initial group stage match against Italy, but it is most defiantly true that Spain have lacked that biting edge to their game that we've come to expect out of them. Two important absences may be contributing factors to this dull cloud hanging over the team: David Villa and Carles Puyol.
At the defensive end, the loss of Puyol to injury has allowed Ramos to shine at CB, but this move has also forced Arbeloa to play RB in Ramos' place. While the CB partnership between Pique and Ramos has been excellent from a defensive standpoint, in most matches the lack of a true attacking threat on the right flank from Arbeloa now that Ramos is not there, and the lack of a quick and skillful passer of the ball on that flank, has contributed to the lack of offensive danger from this version of the Spanish NT. The leadership qualities of Puyol may also play some minor role. Puyol is a vocal presence that spurs on intensity and urgency, two things that this Spanish side has also lacked.
At the offensive end of the field, the loss of David Villa to injury, and the loss of Torres to the voodoo that is his psychological makeup, has forced Spain to try and find some other source of goals. Cesc, Negredo, Silva, Iniesta..... nothing has worked quite as well as Del Bosque has planned. Pedro's inclusion as a substitute has shown flashes of the Spain of old when he combines with Alba and Iniesta on the left side of the pitch, and Llorente on the bench could be the solution that Del Bosque needs. I'm sure something new will be tried by Del Bosque at the start of this match, but it's anyone's guess as to what that change will be. Italy's front line is very predictable at this point, while Spain's is anything but predictable.
Will Spain make history, winning the third major intentional tournament in a row, and their 3rd European Championship to join Germany at the top of that list?
Will Itally win their 2nd European championship, joining Spain and France?
Will Balotelli stop the Spanish defensive streak and jump in front of the rest in the competitions scoring chart?
Will Llorente get a chance to show what he can do and actually play a minute in this tournament?
These are only a few of the pressing questions as the build up to the final continues!
My personal prediction: Spain 3 - 1 Italy
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