Football writers the world over will be frantically thumbing through their thesaureses this evening, desperately searching for new superlatives for a performance from Spain that we may well one day look back upon as the definitive of our age. Over the last few days a frankly tedious circular debate has been raging on the subject of whether Spain are “boring” or not. It’s an argument that was rendered suddenly and startlingly obsolete this evening by a complete football performance which rendered a previously impressive looking Italian side bloodied and broken. If this match had been a boxing match, it would have been stopped long ago. Had it been a horse race, they’d have shot both the horse and the jockey.
It was so one-sided as to be little more than a exhibition match by the end and, while there was something a little unfortunate about the fact that Thiago Motta did something unpleasant to his hamstring half an hour to play, but in all honesty the game, for Italy was already up. Apart from a short flourish in the opening few minutes of the second half, Italy were seldom in this match, and by its end such was the gulf between these two teams that Sergio Busquets was making an appearance in the Italian six yard area trying to back back heel the ball past the Italian goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon. At the full-time whistle, the Italian team were as graceful – and judging by the looks on many of their faces – as devastated as it is possible to be, but there was no real injustice to be seen this evening. They never stood a chance.
The policy of playing no strikers was being called into question again as soon as the team was announced, but within the first five minutes the tactic was clear. Whilst Spain were playing with no orthodox strikers, they were pushing so hard up the pitch that it didn’t matter. Such was their level of organisation that every time Italy did get the ball it seemed as if there were immediately six or seven Spanish players surrounding them. This wasn’t possession as a fetish, it was possession with a purpose, and after fourteen minutes we got to see this purpose when Cesc Fabregas reached the line and turned the ball back for David Silva to head the ball into the roof of the net.
Italy tried to get back into the match, they really did. They recovered well from conceding the first goal, with Cassano – three times – and Pirlo attempting retaliatory shots, but with four minutes to play of the first half Spain killed the game stone dead, with a move that flowed perfectly from one end of the pitch to the other, starting with a clearance from goalkeeper Iker Casillas and ending with Xavi threading a perfectly weighted pass through for Jordi Alba to roll the ball under Buffon to double their lead. Again, Italy attempted to come back and Montolivos shot was parried by Casillas, who was looking something like the weakest link in the Spanish chain, and at the start of the second half Italy play wit a purpose which could lead us to think that they could yet find a route back into this match, with Montolivo finding Di Natale, whose shot was well blocked by Casillas.
After fifty-seven minutes, Cesare made his third substitution in bring Motta on Montolivo. It proved to be a costly decision when, just four minutes after he came on, he pulled up and had to be taken off the pitch on a stretcher. With a man advantage, the match – as if it had really been in the first place – ended as a contest. With Mottas departure, the fight dissipated from the Italian team and vanished into the humid Kiev night. Italy were matching Spain in terms of possession, but this evening such figures were an irrelevance. With seven minutes to play, Xavi – again – rolled the ball for substitute Fernando Torres to roll the ball in and remove any remaining traces of doubt over the destination of the Henri Delaunay trophy, and four minutes later Xavi – yet again – found Torres, who rolled the ball back for Juan Mata score their fourth goal.
So, what to say about Spain, then? Three major tournament wins in a row, a run to the final that, whilst occasionally looking as if it had failed to get out of third gear but ended with a thorough, comprehensive thrashing of the team that most had regarded as the “other” best team of the tournament up to kick-off this evening. The criticism of them over the last few weeks now sounds hollow. They did enough to get to the final, and once there they played out one of the great international football performances of recent years. This is the great international team of our age, and all the superlatives in that thesaurus probably couldn’t do them justice. This evening, Spain were the best team in Europe, and that was enough – as it of course should be – to win the European Championships at, in the end, a canter.
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