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Jul 1, 2012

Much too good

KIEV -- How do you improve on perfection? To follow Vicente Del Bosque’s example, you must first flirt with imperfection. Euro 2012 has been won in brutal style and thus makes Spain’s generation of 2008 to 2012 the best international team of all time, in terms of raw achievement.

This time, Spain has achieved immortality while all the time searching for a formula. The "false nine," the "4-6-0." toying with Torres, the mystifying selection of Alvaro Negredo against Portugal, the introduction of a winger in Jesus Navas with no striker to aim at against Croatia. All have been experimental and confusing to many. But on the balance of again being crowned kings of Europe, all have paid off.

Del Bosque has felt able to tinker because he has such good players at his disposal. While equations have been tried, tested and discarded, games have been won and only one goal has been conceded. Spain had won trophies together before. This time they just did it differently, in a manner against orthodoxy, though there is nothing unconventional about the simplicity of being a lot better than anyone else. In Kiev, it also did it better.

Having already proved his team could dominate a continent by playing without a striker, Del Bosque then showed he could have done so with one too when Fernando Torres’ cameo supplied a goal for himself and an assist for Juan Mata. That Torres - who has started just two matches at the tournament - wins the Golden Boot served as further illustration of a team from a different galaxy, let alone continent, to the rest of Europe. 

In a tournament where defensive and negative teams have been too often undone by not actually being able to defend, Spain took victory by playing its own game and not worrying about what the opposition did. La Roja's game is not reactive. It plays to its own strengths, those of possession and an almost extra-sensory interchange of passing.

Who needs mere strikers when you have the players they can call on? Among the many things Spain has proved is that good players really can play anywhere. That goes for Sergio Ramos -- once a full back and now a dominant central defender -- and the versatile Alvaro Arbeloa too. It certainly goes for Jordi Alba who showed he is both a fine defender and a deadly attacking weapon. Then there's Cesc Fabregas, the man long expected to succeed Xavi as creative midfield fulcrum, who led the forward line as well as anyone else has for any other team during Euro 2012.  

It helps that in Xavi and Andres Iniesta, Spain has two leaders with unmatchable powers of creation. Xavi, who had often looked tired over the last three weeks, was finally restored to his former self, that of the pinpoint of Spain’s triangular passing patterns, the backbeat to its rhythm. Iniesta meanwhile is now perhaps the world’s foremost "big game player." There have been very few grand occasions when impish Iniesta has not come through for his team. In South Africa it was he who supplied the World Cup-winning goal. This time he played architect rather than executioner. 

The Iniesta pass that set Cesc Fabregas down the right wing to play the cross for diminutive David Silva to head in was delicately weighted in its precision. The goal killed stone dead a period of Italian pressure. It should be noted that Italy had not set out to spoil. It intended to play its own game too.

Xavi matched his old friend’s influence when showing the patience, awareness and sixth sense to play through to Jordi Alba for his goal on the overlap. Alba took his chance in a style that any top-class number nine would covet, let alone a false one. If this was a night to confirm a team’s primacy and place in the pantheon, then it is apt that Alba’s finish reminded of Carlos Alberto’s clincher for Brazil in the World Cup final of 1970 -- the team’s inspirational force, only swap Xavi for Pele -- buying himself time to supply a full back’s thumping finish.  

Xavi and Iniesta’s utter dominance made Andrea Pirlo peripheral. The player of the tournament prior to Kiev’s final was not neutralized by the negative of being man-marked. Instead, Italy’s maestro was rendered anonymous by his equivalent, Xavi, being in such control. The Italians’ hopes of throwing the Spaniards off-tempo were crushed because they were pressed even harder. Pirlo was to be found chasing Xavi rather than serving as playmaker. The Italian maestro’s long passes could never exert the influence of his Spanish counterpart’s staccato short game.

Thiago Motta’s brief appearance and subsequent injury robbed Cesare Prandelli of any chance of rescuing the game though even by the time Italy were reduced to ten men, the game was up. By then Spain already had the Azzurri in desperate pain. Once Spain settled, Italy’s attacks looked hurried and harassed. The frustration of having to chase and then being suffocated whenever briefly in possession meant that any chances were snatched at and Antonio Cassano and Mario Balotelli were never allowed in from the far fringes of the game.    

“They completely dominated the contest this evening,” admitted Prandelli. “We have to congratulate a great team.”

Spain’s successes of 2008, 2010 and now 2012 have been based on possession and passing. It is now in possession of international football history after surpassing all that has been put in front of them. Next stop is the World Cup in Brazil and a chance to smash down another frontier. Perhaps only the march of time can stop the Spanish. This was its most emphatic victory yet.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Xavi, Spain. In these stats-crazed times, it would seem pertinent to point out that he completed 41 from 44 passes inside the final third -- including two assists. He also supplied a performance to match his dominance of the final four years ago in Vienna. Talk of him as a spent force now seems laughably premature.

SPAIN VERDICT: Simply the best. It had been toying with us all along. After winning two previous finals 1-0, this time La Roja supplied its Brazil 1970 moment in thumping four past Italy to confirm itself to be Europe’s best-ever team. And without David Villa and Carles Puyol, too.

ITALY VERDICT: As painful an evening as the Azzurri has ever suffered. There were brief moments after Silva’s opener when it looked capable of making it a contest but Alba’s overlapping goal wounded them mortally, only for Motta’s reducing of them to ten men to completely kill Italy off. If there is one reason for its embarrassment it is that the midfield just could not cope with Spain’s greater numbers and much higher class.

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