Italy v Spain, July 1, 7.45pm
1 July ~ As European and world champions, Spain are favourites to beat Italy in tonight's final. The cliche that the game will be won or lost in the midfield holds true in this instance. While Spain possess an abundance of creativity and flair, Italy have enough of the antidote: hard-working, tactically astute box-to-box midfielders expert in closing down spaces. Spain's flaw is their tactical rigidity. They fail to adapt when their game is impeded. With such talent and such an effective style of possession football, they rarely the need to adapt but, as we saw against Germany, Italy are more than capable of disrupting an opponent's plans.
The full-backs will play a key role, providing width to otherwise narrow sides (particularly in Italy’s case). An interesting battle should unfold between Jordi Alba and Ignazio Abate, both relative newcomers to the international scene who have impressed thus far. Paralleling the contrasts in midfield, Abate is the industrious workhorse while Alba has technical prowess.
Likewise, Federico Balzaretti and Alvaro Arbeloa should offer a similar duel, with Balzaretti likely to offer more in attack. With midfields that love to play through the middle, Plan A for both teams could produce a stalemate, rendering the ability to stretch one’s opponent with wide play from the full-backs the deciding factor.
Plaudits have come far and wide for Andrea Pirlo, and deservedly so, as he has dictated play beautifully. However, Riccardo Montolivo is the man Italy must look to as a viable alternative to Pirlo, who will undoubtedly be marked closely throughout the match. Indeed, it was Montolivo who proved the difference in the semi-final, transferring domestic form to the international stage, linking well with Pirlo and even dictating play from further up the field. If Spain are successful in their attempts to stifle Pirlo, Italy will need an alternative or risk becoming very one-dimensional, and it is up to Montolivo to step up.
If these two teams' first encounter in the group stage is anything to go by, it will be the man in the number 9 role that will make the difference for Spain. While lacking the sharpness that would come from playing regularly, Fernando Torres wreaked havoc on Italy’s defence in the closing stages of their match. If he can do justice to the quality of ball that he will no doubt be provided with, Italy will struggle to cope with him.
Even as an Italy supporter, had I been asked the outcome of this final before the tournament began I would have been inclined to say Spain. However, Italy have proven their worth with some smart, effective and (dare I say) attractive football. Spain, conversely, have hardly lived up to their reputation, aside from a walkover against a spectacularly poor Irish side. It is as much Italy’s game to win as it is Spain’s to lose. Jules Carlone