Azzurri blitz will worry Spain

The Italian Renaissance

Last night Germany, a team tipped by so many for glory, succumbed to the blue surge which threatens to run away with the cup itself. Euro 2012 was supposed to end in a Germany v Spain final. The Italians have sneaked in the back door.

Balotelli flexes his muscles.
Having entered Euro 2012 under the shadow of yet another match-fixing scandal, with police hauling away defender Domenico Criscito from the squad for questioning, the Azzurri now find themselves a game from glory with another chance to get the better of Spain.

Big players step up to the big occasions and despite the 21 year-old's instability, the smouldering volcano that is Mario Balotelli justified his 'Super' prefix with a double whammy of goals in the first half, the second despatched with such aplomb it looked every inch a killer blow.

Joachim Low's proteges, brimming with confidence and scaring the continent before kick-off, found themselves two down after 36 minutes and in deep trouble. This was not in the script. Germany had been  plunged into unfamiliar territory and knew not how to chase the game. Shellshocked, they never recovered and the penalty scored by the normally matchwinning Mesut Ozil in injury time was scant consolation.

Forza Azzurri, the team the Germans cannot beat (1970, 1982, 2006, 2012...). Eight games and counting, the white shirts have failed to beat the blue. The echoes of 2006 grow louder every day. The scandal, the low expectations, the siege mentality, the hard work and discipline and the team's sleek progress to the final. Label them underdogs and they will run like greyhounds out of the traps.

While Balotelli's sucker punches have thrilled and the elegant playmaking of Andrea Pirlo, an Indian summer made in Italy, has charmed Europe, coach Cesare Prandelli remains as much an ace in the pack.

Little known outside Italy beforehand, the former Fiorentina 'c.t.' (manager) has cut an assured figure on the touchline, always on his feet, applauding and encouraging his players, directing proceedings like a conductor and never looking flustered.

Another lynchpin of the eleven has been Gianluigi Buffon, whose deep-set eyes and forbidding visage belie his 34 years as much as Pirlo's wizened looks belie his 33. It is no coincidence the two affect the game so much.

Like Pirlo, Buffon is evergreen too, employing his reflexes at key moments to prevent scores and ensuring his back four know there is another awesome line of defence behind them.

Buffon left the Warsaw field after the semi-final cursing missed chances instead of toasting victory. The whole squad looked humbled when they visited Auschwitz earlier this month, but the goalkeeper seemed deepest in thought. The custodian of the team is also its most earnest member.

Italy's calcio culture is so intense the national team should never be underrated. Serie A has been the benchmark for high intensity training and tactics for decades. And while English and Spanish clubs have stolen marches on the Italian dominance of the 1990s, the model preparation and professionalism of Italian sides remains.

While the Azzurri's eleven may not measure up as individuals to Spain's, their team spirit and collective unit is as strong as anyone's. Few tipped them for World Cup glory in 2006 but their awe-inspiring swatting of the host nation in the semi-final convinced any doubters.

When Spain and Italy met in their opening fixture in Euro 2012, the contrast in styles was fascinating. Italy bowed to Spain and let tiki-taka dictate the play, but their backline held firm. When Pirlo found Antonio Di Natale with one of his clinical insertions and the Udinese striker found the net, a daylight robbery was on the cards. Counter-attacking par excellence: Soak up the pressure until the opposition gets frustrated then strike on the counter to leave them dazed and confused.

Keep Calm
Spain were not about to lie down however and Cesc Fabregas equalised five minutes later; honours were shared. Both sides left with bones to pick, neither having succumbed. Sunday's final offers Spain the unprecedented chance to add a third consecutive crown and retain the European Championship trophy they won in Vienna in 2008, an offer they cannot refuse. All they have to do is beat the team that dumped out Germany.

The attack-minded La Roja were better than the defensive Italy in Gdansk, but failed to win the contest. For all Spain's talent and ingenuity, the Azzurri's breathtaking assassination in Warsaw means the holders will enter Kiev's Olympic Stadium unsure of keeping hold of their cup.

Italy v Spain - two great footballing nations clash with the European Championship the prize.

Sunday's derby of the Mediterranean looks too close to call.

ITALY (probable): 4-3-1-2: Buffon, Abate, Barzagli, Bonucci, Chiellini, Marchisio, Pirlo, De Rossi, Montolivo, Balotelli, Cassano.

Sightseeing in Warsaw

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile


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