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Jun, 29, 2012

Semi-final review

The tournament is denied one ultimate showdown... but may have another

Since the 2010 World Cup semi-final, it had seemed that Euro 2012 was building up to a showdown of genuinely historic dimensions. On the one hand, you had one of the finest international sides in the game’s history in Spain. On the other, you had the future: the Germans.

It was going to be youth against seniority, possession against power, poise against pace. Not only that, it was going to be a face-off between two nations that have implemented the most impressive infrastructures in international football. This, seemingly, would have been their prize for patience.

Now, only one of them will be there. And, surprisingly, it’s not the team that had seemed so much fresher. Ultimately, Italy took advantage of the rawness and openness of the Germany to expose their flaws and reach the final instead. Cesare Prandelli’s side were able to take the sort of control that has been so key to the Spanish and so lacking in Germany.

So, rather than a repeat of the Euro 2008 final or the 2010 semi-final, we’ll have a repeat of one of the opening games – the third time that has happened in the competition’s history, after 1988 and 2004.

It’s also not the first time the football world has been denied the showdown it craved. At the World Cup in South Africa, many had wanted to see Brazil face Spain, but Netherlands denied the South Americans in the quarter-finals. At this year's tournament, Germany had been many neutrals' favourites, and had won every game leading up to their semi-final.

Ireland were the only team Italy had beaten without the need for penalties before they saw off Germany, but that is no reason to think the Azzurri's presence will make for a less compelling final. One of Italy’s draws, after all, was against the Spanish. And, whereas a German team that has simply looked too open at the back were quite clinically seen off by Spain in the previous tournament matches, Prandelli’s side have given the world champions more problems than they’ve faced against any other team in all of that time.

The 1-1 draw wasn’t too far off a tactical masterclass by the Italian coach and, since then, the dynamic has shifted further. With every game at the tournament, Italy have only grown in confidence. The supreme performance against Germany was arguably the culmination of what they started in the Spain game.

The Spanish, meanwhile, have only declined in sharpness. What’s more, Portugal picked up the lessons of the Italians by going at Spain in a different way to pretty much every other side. It caused Vicente Del Bosque’s side some serious discomfort and, if the Spanish look through history, that will only become more apparent. As has been well documented, they have never beaten the Italians. If they are to now make history, and become the first nation to win three major tournaments in a row, they’re going to finally have to.

Spain have brought themselves to the brink by pushing themselves to the edge

Before the two semi-finals, much was made of the fact that Germany and Portugal could enjoy a six-day break while Spain and Italy had to endure four. In the end, it seemed irrelevant as both of the latter teams went though.

That doesn’t mean it wasn’t a very real issue for the Spanish though. For one, you could see the effects. Against Portugal, they weren’t reaching passes as regularly, there was often something off about their touch, many more balls than usual were being miscontrolled.

Such errors weren’t just a result of those four rest days. They were a result of the last four years. Since Spain started this incredible span of success at the beginning of Euro 2008, they have played almost one extra season compared to other Euro 2012 teams.

With Barcelona also dominating Europe, their players’ average number of games per season since June 2008 has been 59. For their semi-final opponents, Portugal, it was 47. Over the course of four years, that adds up to an extra 48 games. For the record, the averages of the other semi-finalists were Germany 46 and Italy 45. That itself is quite a difference, and it could well make a difference come Sunday.

That has already taken its toll in things more visible than mere mistakes. Before Euro 2012, Spain had already lost two absolute cornerstones of the team in Carles Puyol and David Villa. Xavi, meanwhile, had to be hauled off early – exhausted. When you consider all of that, it is actually quite remarkable that they have somehow pushed themselves to another final.

Perhaps the argument about whether they are boring should be framed in a different way as it was perhaps inevitable that there would be a drop-off in their dynamism, and it was maybe even more inevitable that they would seek to counter it by controlling games.

It is admirable that, despite Portugal trying a different approach against them rather than just sitting deep, they still haven’t been beaten, and still haven’t conceded a knockout goal since 2006.

Ultimately, the big results were decided by individual moments

As the Donetsk semi-final entered the last ten minutes of normal time, Cristiano Ronaldo had the opportunity to finish off four years of Spanish dominance. He failed to take it, blazing his shot over the bar. And, although he wasn’t exactly helped by the placement of Raul Meireles’ pass, it summed up his career in much the same manner as his last semi-final.

In May, against Bayern Munich in the Champions League, Ronaldo had started brilliantly by scoring two goals only to then fail with his most important kick of the match: his penalty in the shootout.

Likewise, it cannot be said that Ronaldo played badly against Spain. On the contrary, he put in one of his most tactically responsible performances and, if he didn’t quite dominate the match, he definitely dominated Spanish minds. Their defensive line was much further back than normal out of simple fear of not giving Ronaldo the space in which he thrives.

But, when it came to properly stepping up, Ronaldo didn’t. The same applies to his Euro 2012 as a whole, though it cannot be said he had a bad tournament. He was brilliant against the Dutch and the Czechs. But the simple fact is that he never truly dominated a competition in the manner many felt that he finally should have.

At this crucial level, Ronaldo’s career is still lacking something.

Andrea Pirlo, meanwhile, may not have the speed of Ronaldo but he is not missing much else. Indeed, it was his pace-setting that ultimately settled the semi-final and illustrated the one major flaw in the German team. They lack a handbrake, meaning their attempt at overwhelmingly fast football can undo them. In short, the Germans seemed in such a rush that they forgot to close the backdoor. Mats Hummels, in particular, completely reversed the perception of his tournament with a single awful performance.

For Spain, Sergio Ramos has been altering perceptions in a different way. After a tournament in which he has been underrated and admirable at centre-half, the Real Madrid man showed impressive bottle to chip the ball into the centre of the goal after having missed his last shootout penalty – against Bayern in the Champions League semi-final.

Then there was the performance of Mario Balotelli. He may never alter perceptions but he did almost alter the structure of the Warsaw net with that breathtaking second goal.

He may well sum up another difference between Italy and Spain in the final: strikers. With Jesus Navas and Pedro tearing Portugal apart in the latter stages of their game, how they could have done with an actual finisher – particularly when Andres Iniesta was presented with the moment to win the match before the shootout.

As it stands, it seems a Spanish player is going to have to do something special on Sunday to take the player of the tournament title off Pirlo – and that may well seal the title itself.

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