The Spanish Armada continues to conquer all. Not content with having captured the European and World championships in 2008 and 2010, on Sunday they became the first side to retain their European title, majestically sweeping aside the challenge of Italy with a masterclass of fast-paced, incisive possession football in the final of Euro 2012.
Their performance in the final was significant, in the context of some unfair criticism of their style that had started creeping up during the three weeks in Poland and Ukraine, but more on that later. Spain had come into the tournament without their most prolific striker, David Villa, and senior centre-half, Carles Puyol, both ruled out through injury. There were question marks over their ability to muster up the requisite motivation, in light of how much this current generation had already achieved, not just in international football but also with their clubs. There was much talk about Germany in particular, finally fulfilling their promise under Joachim Low. In the event, the Spanish left no room for any doubts about their dominance on the pitch.
They started characteristically slowly, with a draw against Italy from which the main talking point happened to be coach Vicente De Bosque’s circumvention of conventional football logic in choosing to put out a side with no recognised striker. It was in effect a 4-6-0 formation, in which the three most advanced midfielders – Cesc Fabregas, Andres Iniesta and David Silva in this case – were expected to fill the role of the striker by continuously arriving in the box as the play went forward, as opposed to a traditional centre-forward who waits in the box to strike. Italy made a good fist of it in fact, during that game, briefly taking the lead in the second half before it got cancelled out, and overall gave a good account of themselves, as they would throughout the rest of the tournament as well.
Over in the group of death, where Germany, Portugal, the Netherlands and Denmark were drawn together, the Dutch turned out to be the tournament’s biggest disappointment. The likes of Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder, Robin Van Persie and Ibrahim Afellay just failed to gel, and although they could count themselves unlucky during a 1-0 loss in their opening game to Denmark, their failure to garner even a single point will rankle. Not surprisingly, coach Bert Van Maarwijk soon lost his job in the aftermath of what was nothing less than a disastrous campaign for Oranje. The loss to Denmark was followed by defeat at the hands of the Germans, for whom hot-and-cold striker Mario Gomez scored two sumptuous goals, and then another 2-1 defeat against Portugal on their last matchday, for whom Cristiano Ronaldo suddenly burst into life as only he can, full of venom to go with deadly intent.
The resurgence of Ronaldo in a Portuguese shirt, after copping much flak in the opening two games, for a while threatened to become the story of the championship. Especially after he followed up his two-goal outing against the Dutch with another menacing performance in the quarter-final, where he grabbed the winner against the Czech Republic and looked a threat throughout. Along with Lionel Messi of Argentina, Ronaldo is widely recognised as one of the two outstanding footballers of his generation. However, neither has ever succeeded in replicating their performance at club level with the likes of Real Madrid, Barcelona and Manchester United on the international stage. Heading into a semi-final with the world champions, the question on everyone’s lips was whether Ronaldo could finally succeed in putting an end to that voodoo. Spain themselves had secured their passage by dispatching the French, who had shown glimmers of their quality during the group phase, before it all started to go wrong for them with some egos starting to emerge in the squad, none bigger than that of the talented playmaker, Samir Nasri.
It was during the France v Spain quarterfinal that the whispers first started going around of Spain’s possession football, built on holding on to the ball by passing it around amongst themselves while looking for a gap to open up to mount a siege of the opponent’s goal, being slightly “boring” at times. The crowds in Poland and Ukraine seemed not to take very kindly to the tendency for there to be periods in a game, especially once the Spanish would take the lead, where they would seem to just knock the ball about between themselves, with little sign of any real attacking intent. No less a figure than Arsene Wenger, manager of Arsenal and one of the most respected voices in the game, weighed in to opine that whereas in the past, Spain had sought to hold on to possession in order to craft chances for goals and win games, the current Spanish side had apparently “betrayed” their principles and now coveted possession principally as a way to ensure they “couldn’t lose”.
To be fair, with six natural midfielders on the pitch, Spain’s football could get a bit overwrought at times for the lay observer. The preponderance of passing, while waiting for a chance to materialise as opposed to hopeful punts up the field for a forward to run on to can manage to slow down the game at times, not to mention frustrate their opponents no end. But to scoff at their style would be to ignore the high level of technical ability and mastery of footballing skill that goes into it. They are that rare side in which every single player, including the goalkeeper as pointed out by Liverpool legend Alan Hansen, is comfortable on the ball. As a result, no-one is ever in a hurry to get rid of it, as is the case with at least three, four or five players in most sides. On occasions, they might wait that tad bit longer to mount an offensive, but most football aficionados would prefer to watch a game with Spain hogging possession for the sheer spectacle of movement and technique it presents, knowing the goals when they come are likely to be beautifully crafted, memorable efforts, than two sides playing sharing possession of the ball more or less equally, being less patient in their build-ups and resorting to the long ball when caught in a corner, and by doing so contributing to a more fast-paced game that is nevertheless bereft of an element of quality.
And in any case, when the Spanish step up a gear as they did during the final in Kyiv, there can be nothing quite as breathtaking currently in the world of football. Nevermind if they bother with a striker or not when that happens. After starting with Fernando Torres in two games during the group phase, they would once again, during the semi-final against Portugal with Alvaro Negredo up front. On that night, Ronaldo seemed to run out of steam, but it was still a closely fought affair that went to penalties before Portugal bowed out. Italy had struck a purple patch themselves, and found themselves in the final with two assured performances against England and Germany. While they had to resort to penalties against the hopelessly out of depth English side, who did nothing while the Italians wasted some thirty-nine chances, the Germans were laid low by an unstoppable double from Mario Balotelli, who had one of those days when he justifies all the hype that surrounds him as the first black player to represent Italy at international level.
So we were set it seemed, for a fantastic final. It very nearly was, and would have been had Italy taken even one of the chances that kept popping up their way in that first half when they became the first team in a long, long time to out-possess the Spanish in a half of football. But to read too much into that statistic, which is based on the amount of time spent with the ball at your feet, would be a mistake. Spain came out in the final completely rejuvenated, and looked twice the side they had in their preceding games. From the get-go, there was a renewed purpose about their game and it was present in the form of a killer instinct that fashioned a flurry of chances before Silva got a goal that exemplified the fluid style Del Bosque had been looking to achieve with his tactics. Jordi Alba, the designated left-back, got a second before the half with a cool finish at the end of a rip-roaring run that midfield maestro Xavi picked out with one of his slide-rule passes, and the game was as good as over, except that the Italians were playing really well. They failed to make their chances count however, and really, with Iker Casillas in the Spanish goal, it often does seem as if opposing teams have to work that much harder to score a goal.
The 4-0 scoreline in the end was unfair on Italy, especially considering their third substitute, Thiago Motta, had to go off with an injury within 5 minutes of coming on, leaving his team to soldier on for most of the last half-hour with a man less. Spain ran riot towards the end, and Torres even managed to come on and ensure despite the preferred striker-less formation, a Spanish striker did win the tournament’s golden boot. It was Iniesta however, who was adjudged the championship’s best player. Although few will argue with that choice, given that a choice had to be made, we should also not forget that one of the things that makes this Spanish side so special is that no one performer really stands out among them. You can almost see how their success is down to a footballing philosophy built on honing players with good technique and everyone learning to play with quick touches mostly along the ground. Sir Alex Ferguson likened them to a carousel. At their best, they resemble an orchestra with each player acting as an instrument as they build up towards a crescendo. And what a mighty crescendo it is.
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