In stylishly dispatching Italy in Sunday evening’s UEFA EURO 2012 final, Spain became the first side in the history of the game to win three consecutive major international titles, having already won UEFA EURO 2008 and the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™.
Relying once again on their movement and precision passing, Vicente Del Bosque’s men produced the perfect performance against the Italians, who played the game at pace but were unable to pierce the Spanish rearguard.
Spain grew in stature as the tournament progressed, drawing on their vast experience and playing within themselves at times, occasionally giving the impression they were struggling to find their form. La Roja held nothing back in the final, however, performing at their sparkling best and mesmerising the Italians with their crisp passing and devastating movement off the ball. Starting once again without a recognised centre-forward, the Spaniards were driven forward by the peerless duo of Xavi and Andres Iniesta, with David Silva providing a cutting edge up front and the pace and vision of Jordi Alba giving them an extra dimension.
There is more to this Spain side than ball retention and goalscoring, however. They are also a formidable defensive machine, having conceded just one goal at EURO 2012 and none at all in their last ten knockout matches at major international tournaments. With the next FIFA World Cup just two years away, they have once again revealed the gulf in class that separates them from their rivals and can now set their sights on an amazing fourth consecutive title.
Having failed to impress since winning the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany, Italy were the revelations of Poland/Ukraine 2012, playing the kind of attractive football they are not usually noted for. Though his side fell short at the last hurdle, Cesare Prandelli’s commitment to an attacking game paid dividends. Andrea Pirlo played an instrumental part in that, even if he, like the similarly resurgent Mario Balotelli failed to make an impression in the final, in which the Italians were left with too much to do after Giorgio Chiellini and Thiago Motta picked up unfortunate injuries. Despite Sunday’s heavy defeat, Prandelli knows he has a squad of players he can rely on over the next two years.
Like Italy, Portugal were not widely expected to impress. And yet Paulo Bento’s did just that in taking second place in the hardest group of the four before coming off a narrow second best to the defending champions in the semi-finals. Czech Republic and Greece can also be happy with their efforts after reaching the last eight, while a disciplined Croatia side deserved better luck than to come up against the two eventual finalists in the group phase.
Can do better
There can be no question that the Netherlands were the big disappointment of the competition. Arriving at the tournament with more or less the same side that finished runners-up at South Africa 2010, the Dutch failed to find their feet and went home with heads bowed after three straight defeats. Section rivals Germany were imperious in reaching the knockout phase but once again came up short at the business end of the tournament. The Germans were left empty-handed after falling to bogey team Italy, a side they have never beaten in the world or European finals. Joachim Low’s widely acclaimed golden generation must now regroup and fuse their pleasing brand of the football with the burning desire that once made Die Mannschaft such a formidable unit. Russia also have cause to ponder what might have been. Losing semi-finalists four years ago, they opened up with a 4-1 demolition of eventual group winners Czech Republic only to lose momentum and fail to progress from their group.
Hampered by the absence of several important players, England had their moments before playing their part in an entertaining quarter-final with Italy and exiting on penalties. Still recovering from their disastrous showing at South Africa 2010, France were unable to build on their recent recovery, though they at least lived up to their FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking in going out to Spain in the last eight. The psychological scars of the past mean Laurent Blanc’s successor will still have a rebuilding job to do, however.
The star players
While picking out a star performer from Spain’s talented bunch is no easy task, it is hard to overlook Andres Iniesta’s outstanding contribution to their latest success, while Jordi Alba, the leading light of Spain’s new generation, also excelled. As for Italy, Pirlo and Gianluigi Buffon were at their very best, while the Azzurri’s new breed are full of promise.
Cristiano Ronaldo strained every sinew in an effort to be the tournament’s No. 1 player, only to be stifled by Real Madrid team-mate Alvaro Arbeloa in the semi-final, the Portuguese flyer ending the tournament with three goals from his 15 shots. Elsewhere, Zlatan Ibrahimovic was unable to carry Sweden into the knockout phase, though he did produce a stunning strike to light up their classy 2-0 defeat of France.
It was a similar story for Andriy Shevchenko, who gave Ukraine hope with his two headers against the Swedes, and Andrei Arshavin and Alan Dzagoev, who shone for Russia with three assists and three goals respectively.
Did you know?
Miroslav Klose is the first player to have appeared in five semi-finals at major international tournaments. The German striker has never collected a winners’ medal, however, finishing a runner-up at the 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan and at UEFA EURO 2008.
22 - The number of headers scored at EURO 2012, accounting for 32 percent of all the goals scored, up 13 percent on EURO 2008.
What they said
“The Confederations Cup is a dress rehearsal for the World Cup and a good opportunity to assess the level of a few teams and of Brazil. It’s the only trophy I haven’t won,” Spain goalkeeper and captain Iker Casillas.
“Italy's qualification for the FIFA Confederations Cup Brazil 2013 is a fantastic achievement for our team. We started a brand new cycle just two years ago after an early elimination at South Africa 2010 and worked really hard to get Italian Football to back to the top level. The team’s recent achievements at UEFA EURO 2012 has given us the opportunity to play against the top national teams and prepare well for Brazil 2014,” Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon.
1. Fernando Torres (ESP, 3 goals, 1 assist, 189 minutes played)
2. Mario Gomez (GER, 3 goals, 1 assist, 282 minutes)
3. Alan Dzagoev (RUS, 3 goals, 253 minutes)
4. Mario Mandzukic (CRO, 3 goals, 270 minutes)
5. Mario Balotelli (ITA, 3 goals, 421 minutes)
6. Cristiano Ronaldo (POR, 3 goals, 480 minutes)
*Qualified for the FIFA Confederations Cup Brazil 2013