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Jun 29, 2008

Spain's victory a vindication of their ideals

Spain have done it, and they have done it on their own terms. They have finally translated talent into trophies, Fernando Torres' 33rd minute goal ending a 44-year wait for silverware.

They won without compromise. This was a quintessentially Spanish side packed with passers. The quarter-final triumph over Italy, albeit on penalties, was interpreted as a moral victory in a meeting of different football philosophies. The final victory over Germany provided the ultimate vindication. The old grouch, Luis Aragones, appears justified in his refusal to bow to popular opinion. His way has encompassed some awkward moments, but also some aesthetically-pleasing football.

There was a sense that it was the rightful outcome, the supreme side of the past three weeks emerging triumphant. They did so in suitable style. The masters of the 10-yard ball, exploiting their ability within tight confines, showed their expertise at picking a pass to unlock a defence as Xavi Hernandez located Torres, whose deft chip showed equal precision.

The presence of Cesc Fabregas, Xavi and Andres Iniesta in the same side, and the subsequent arrival of Xabi Alonso as a substitute, demonstrated that similar players can flourish together with the right outlook; it also made regaining possession from the Spanish somewhat difficult.

As the tournament progressed, they improved whenever Iniesta and David Silva switched flanks, enabling each to cut in on his favoured foot. It further crowded the central areas, but Spain's expertise at threading passes through the midfield traffic was apparent.

Even the defensive midfielder, the excellent Marcos Senna, showed his expertise on the ball; the simplicity of his passing was entirely suitable when he was surrounded by more gifted distributors.

Given his influence at nullifying the opposition's pivotal player, whether Andrei Arshavin in the semi-final or Michael Ballack in the Vienna showdown, it would have been deserved if the Villarreal man had concluded the final with a second goal. Instead, stretching, he just could not convert but, for a player whose many contributions can go unnoticed, it was perhaps fitting that the glory went to others.

The naturalised Brazilian was probably the pick of the new European champions, but there was a consistency of excellence from many of his colleagues. Torres and David Villa provided potency in attack, Iker Casillas added agility and quality in goal.

So the vast majority of the Spanish side were amongst the best in the tournament in their respective positions. It pointed to a team with fewer flaws and less faults to exploit. An unenviable history represented a burden, but Aragones' personnel did not.

Statistically, they were the best side, scoring the most goals and conceding the fewest. More significantly, unlike Holland and Portugal, they maintained their early momentum and became more resilient defensively as the competition progressed. A defence that endured its shaky moments in the group games was not breached in the knockout stages.

Euro 2008 was notable more for outstanding midfielders than fine defenders; Spain possessed both, and if the quartet of Sergio Ramos, Carles Puyol, Carlos Marchena and Joan Capdevila do not rival the Italian rearguard of the 2006 World Cup, they were at their most solid when it mattered most.

The same could not be said for their German counterparts. The suspicion that their weakness was defensive was eventually proven.

The surprise was that Philipp Lahm was the man found fallible, responsible for the concession of goals in both the final and the semi-final. The left-back, whose wonderful winner defeated Turkey so dramatically, became the latest to be reminded of football's cruel capacity to transform hero into villain with unfortunate rapidity. Christoph Metzelder and Per Mertesacker were found short because of a lack of ability, not attitude.

In that, they epitomised their side. Germany's limitations mean that, despite their pre-tournament status as favourites, it was an achievement by Joachim Loew to reach the final, despite being in the easier half of the draw. With Mario Gomez enduring a dreadful tournament, the manager's options were limited and a dependence upon a handful of players was apparent.

Ballack provided two outstanding examples of leadership against Austria and Croatia, Bastian Schweinsteiger infused both quarter- and semi-finals with a sense of pace and purpose and Lukas Podolski emerged from the bench at Bayern Munich to provide speed and skill. But they had a handful of world-class players; Spain enjoyed almost a whole team of them.

Traditional powers, Germany looked to their forcefulness. Aerial ability represented their greatest threat, big-match temperament their major cause for optimism. Neither proved sufficient to defeat a side with greater talent and technique. Height could not conquer poise, an age-old indefatigability could not save them when they chased Spanish shadows.

They spent the majority of added time in their own half, unable to get the ball back from Spain. That was entirely appropriate, because no team uses the ball better in Europe.


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