In the end it was, to put it mildly, not even close and when Spain’s players walked up the steps to collect the Henri Delaunay trophy shortly before midnight in Kiev last night they did so with the familiarity of a team for whom winning is no longer a surprise, it is a straightforward case of expectation.
At the top of the stack, looking down on the rest of the world there can be no arguments any more about who is the greatest, and no more quibbles about style: this, unquestionably, is the age of Spain, the great champions of modern football. They have answered every question asked of them in the last four years and their margin of victory last night was a brute reminder of how far ahead of the rest of the pack they remain.
To win one major tournament is an extraordinary achievement but to clamber back to the top of the pile a second and now third time, as Vicente del Bosque’s team has done, is the calling card of a side that is not just winning trophies but redefining how we think about football. Spain picked off Italy in the first half, despite a resurgence from Cesare Prandelli’s team, and then they crushed them in the second.
European champions four years ago; World Cup winners in 2010 and now the winners of Euro 2012 – it can be difficult to comprehend the scale of Spain’s achievement. Boring? Only if you think it boring to watch a team capable of shaping and controlling the chaos of the game with such style and such technical accomplishment.
This kind of domination of world football does not come easy. The likes of Iker Casillas, Xavi and Andres Iniesta, all superb last night, learned the international tournament together as teenagers, age-group by age-group, trophy by trophy. At the peak of their strengths last night they celebrated, with their children playing among the streamers on the pitch, their third consecutive international trophy. It has never been done before.
Yes, Italy had their moments, especially after Spain’s first goal on 14 minutes from David Silva when they fought back into the game to the extent that they had 53 per cent of the possession in the first half. Those possession statistics have not fallen in favour of an opponent of Spain since the Euro 2008 final against Germany and by the end of the game normal service had been resumed.
Jordi Alba scored Spain’s second, in thrilling style, on 41 minutes and, with Prandelli chasing the game, the Italians walked into an ambush. Prandelli had used his first substitute to replace the injured Giorgio Chiellini in the first half, then brought on Antonio Di Natale for Antonio Cassano at half-time. It was his third change, on 55 minutes, Thiago Motta for Riccardo Montolivo, that really did for Italy.
When Motta, who has struggled with injury all tournament, pulled up with a hamstring injury, there was no option to replace him. Italy found themselves in the crosshairs with nowhere to run. Spain choked the life out the game and, when their opponents could fight no more, they scored twice in the closing stages through Chelsea’s Spanish boys Fernando Torres and Juan Mata, on as substitutes.
It was a brutal end for the likes of Andrea Pirlo and Daniel De Rossi who put up noble resistance. For Torres it caps a season that is difficult to assess. He won the Champions League and the European Championship, yet could hardly claim to be a key figure for club or country. His goal last night won him the Golden Boot for Euro 2012, by virtue of the fact that he had scored his three goals in fewer minutes on the pitch than the others on that total.
At the end of the game, Torres looked delighted. Good luck to him. Being a £50m centre-forward in a team that does not play with a recognised striker would test the patience of the most balanced individual.
It was a frantic start by Spain who, at times in those opening stages, played as well as they ever have. It was as if they had been saving themselves for this final, tailoring their style and preserving their energy in the previous rounds in order to make one final statement about the kind of team they are.
Cesc Fabregas hit the cross for Spain’s first goal, a chip back across goal that he retrieved from the byline under pressure from Chiellini. Fabregas had started the move and got the ball back via Xavi and Iniesta to pick out Silva in the box. Silva met the ball sharply with his head and beat Gianluigi Buffon who had followed the ball out from his goalmouth.
With only 14 minutes gone and under intense pressure, lesser teams than Prandelli’s Italy might have folded but they came back into the game and created chances. A few times Spain were saved by Casillas who always seems to find a way to get a punch or, failing that, a touch to the ball when it matters.
The second Spain goal started with Alba winning the ball in his own half. He gave the ball to Xavi, continued his run forward and in the moment Alba crossed the defensive line, Xavi struck a wonderful pass through the Italian rearguard. The Portuguese linesman got his call just right to give him onside and Alba finished with the casual confidence of an experienced centre-forward
That second goal sent Italy back into the changing rooms at half-time robbed of all the momentum that their good 20 minutes in the middle of the first half had given them.
Italy missed a couple of chances that fell to Di Natale at the start of the second half and then, with Motta’s injury, events really began to conspire against them.
By the time Torres slipped the ball past Buffon from Xavi’s pass Italy were out the game. Mata’s close range goal from Torres’ cut-back only made it worse.
As for Mario Balotelli, this was a poor performance, compounded by him shoving an Italian Football Federation official and stomping off down the tunnel at the close.
He later returned to shed a few tears for the television cameras but he need not have bothered. This was Spain’s night and no one was going to stop them.
Sam Wallace, The Independent