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|Euro 2012 Analysis: Gallant Italy can hold their heads high despite final thrashing|
Fifteen minutes after the final whiste at the Olympic Stadium in Kiev, and Leonardo Bonucci, Andrea Pirlo and Mario Balotelli are still on their haunches, unable to hold back the tears. Yet there was nothing to be disheartened about for the brave Italian side that took to the European Championships. In the end, plain and simple, they were outplayed by the best side to ever play this great game.
The Final of Euro 2012 couldn't have looked further away for Cesare Prandelli's men in the build up to this tournament. When Domenico Criscito was forcibly withdrawn from Italy's squad in one of the nations largest ever match-fixing scandals, Prandelli admitted he would have "no problem" if the Italians were removed from the tournament.
Ever since, Prandelli has conducted himself impeccably on behalf of his country, leading Italy on the road to the Olympic Stadium.
Going into the Final, Italy looked a settled and extremely well balanced squad. Gianluigi Buffon was unbeatable in between the sticks; Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli had been standouts at the heart of their defence; Daniele De Rossi, Claudio Marchisio and Riccardo Montolivo had provided fantastic support to the magnificent Pirlo, who was in career best form; while Balotelli and Antonio Cassano were working as an effective strike force.
It all seemed to be coming together at the perfect time for the Italians. However they were met in Kiev by a Spanish side keen to break all the records.
Prandelli may have made a mistake in picking an underdone Giorgio Chiellini. His defending was suspect on the first goal, after he was beaten by the precision of Andres Iniesta's pass and the pace of Cesc Fabregas in getting to the byline. Just seven minutes later and he limped off for Federico Balzaretti with the same thigh injury that had troubled him throughout the tournament.
Pirlo, favourite for the Golden Ball for Player of the Tournament, was suffocated out of the game by some canny Vicente del Bosque tactics. Fabregas, playing as the 'false number nine', continued to work back into midfield to stifle Pirlo's ability to drop deep and gain possession. It meant the influential Italian was hardly ever allowed the time or space to pick a pass.
Meanwhile at the other end, Spain's playmaker's were able to run rampant, and Xavi took advantage by playing a sublime ball to set up Jordi Alba's goal.
Spain's ability to tie down Pirlo was reflected in the statistics. Xavi played a total of 95 passes at a 93% efficiency rate, in comparison to Pirlo's 57 passes at an 80% efficiency rate. Xavi also spent close to a minute longer in possession of the ball than Pirlo throughout the match.
TOTAL PASSES 95 57
SUCCESS RATE 93% 80%
TIME IN POSSESSION 2.15 1.25
Balotelli and Cassano were quiet up front, being well held by the battled hardened centre back pairing of Gerard Pique and Sergio Ramos. Balotelli's impact on the game was extremely limited, and at times he was forced to track right back to his own penalty area in order to win possession of the ball. It was a helpless sight for Italian fans. Despite their strikers tearing a compact German defence to pieces in the Semi Final, they were no match for a Spanish defence which conceded just one goal in their six games at Euro 2012.
Prandelli continued to be bold in his decision-making, electing to use his final two substitutions before the hour mark. Antonio Di Natale was introduced to provide another goal scoring option, while Thiago Motta was brought on to replace the quiet Montolivo.
De Rossi, who had been outstanding throughout the tournament, was hardly seen in the 90 minutes. Like Pirlo, Montolivo and Marchisio, he found it hard to get the ball back off a dominant Spanish midfield which controlled the game from start to finish.
Just when the Italians needed a slice of luck, they got the exact opposite. Motta had been on the field for less than five minutes before he tore his hamstring. It left Italy playing with ten men for the remaining half hour, and allowed Spain the freedom of the midfield. The likes of Xavi and Sergio Busquets found this too good an opportunity to refuse, easily orchestrating the final two goals to seal the 4-0 victory.
The praise for Spain will be glowing in the days following their victory, and so it should be - the first ever side to win back-to-back European Championships, the first ever side to win three major international tournaments in a row, the second ever side to win three European Championships - however we must not forget Italy's contribution to this tournament.
They never came out at the Olympic Stadium to try and bog down the Spanish midfield. They played their game, on their terms. They had bright spells throughout the match, most notably after going a goal down, however they continued to stick it out with two strikers to try and win the match. For that, we must thank the Italians.
They played a gallant brand of football throughout the tournament, and although the pain of losing the Final may last for a while, Prandelli's men will eventually be able to sit back and reflect on a tournament which provided an incredible amount of positives.
They were beaten by a perfect team, and a team that will go down as one of the best, if not the best, to ever grace a football pitch.