Time to make the jump
Bayern Munich’s crushing defeat to Chelsea didn’t bode well for Germany at Euro 2012. These players had now lost a final and two semi-finals with Germany and two Champions League finals with Bayern. At the beginning there had been mitigating circumstances and better teams, but by the 2010 loss to Spain the excuses were running out, and the Chelsea loss was now inexcusable. It would get worse.
It had always been assumed that Spain and Germany would reach the final preordained, despite their minor problems approaching summer 2012. Germany’s time had come to take it to the next level and finally win with their new generation, but Bayern’s terrible loss to Chelsea, along with Germany’s previous failures, put a question mark over the nerve of the current breed. Surprisingly, there were small problems popping up all over the team, but for four matches it always went right on the night. The defence was not watertight. Schweinsteiger was oddly out of form, and the players in the forward structure, to whom coach Joachim Loew had been excessively loyal, proved obsolete. Podolski on the left and Muller on the right had been non-factors since the last World Cup, and it was debatable if centre forward Mario Gomez was up to the required standard. Supplementary forwards Klose, as well as the quick young ones Marco Reus and Mario Goetze were all better bets, but they were forced out by Gomez, who had been Bayern’s man in 2012. The only player definitely in form, besides Ozil’s usual light touches, was Sami Khedira, the evolving defensive midfielder.
To be fair to Germany, they won their first four games. In the marquee matchup of the group stage they authoritatively dispatched a surprisingly declining Holland 2-1, who would lose every match at Euro 2012, the disconnection between their attack (the selfish Robben, the finished Sneijder, etc.) and the rest of the team finally found out against quality opposition. Gomez scored three times in the first two matches, looking at times like a complete forward, ripping a brilliant goal on the angle against Holland. Coach Loew, called a tactical genius, was then too clever for his own good, swapping his team over for the quarter-final (a 4-2 victory) and then setting up differently yet again in the semi-final against Italy rather than allowing a settled line-up to dictate terms.
Spain’s triple threat
Euro 2012, in conjunction with the 2010 and 2014 World Cups, taught us that Europe’s numerous vanilla teams were not particularly more relevant, interesting or even much better than those of any other confederation, excepting of course the main axis of Spain, Germany, Holland and occasionally Italy. The entire tournament, while fun, can be reduced to its final two matches without particularly compromising its story.
Spain, in the image of Barca had dissolved into a midfield mush. Forward David Villa and defender Carlos Puyol, the only two who provided some sort of sense of specialist positioning, were both ruled out of the tournament injured. Their defence would now consist of Pique, who had had a terrible year, the questionable Sergio Ramos (two people who hated each other in the Clásicos) and perennial fill-in Arbeloa. Up front Spain dispensed with the idea that they needed a forward at all and played Cesc in the centre forward position. In midfield Xavi had seen better days. Add to this how unlikely it was that a team win three major tournaments in a row.
Yet somehow in the end all that didn’t matter. Real Madrid and Spain captain Casillas and Barca’s Xavi had worked the phones – against Jose Mourinho’s wishes – and striven to heal the rifts that had occurred from 2011. Spain played two mediocre group matches against Italy and Croatia, as at the World Cup progressing forward whatever the state of their actual play. Against a quality Croatia the two played a long stalemate in which a goal would eliminate either team. Casillas provided the necessary save when called on before Spain scored at the end of it. They walked the ball into the net, the goal their risk-free play indicated they had always been looking for.
As in 2010, Spain got it together in the crunch. In the quarter-final against France there was a definite “Let’s get this done” vibe from Spain pre-match, a collective experienced assurance in their stance. The major bonus for them in 2012 was their new left-back Jordi Alba, previously a weak position for Spain. The French specifically laid plans to stop that wing but he still put the ball onto Xavi Alonso’s head twenty minutes in. Spain as usual played the 1-0 out easily, stroking the ball around, lulling the opposition into submission, putting the match to sleep. But this time they had done it well, provoking ‘Uh oh’ reactions all over Germany. The monster was back.
Cristiano Ronaldo had at long last begun to be his dominant club self for Portugal after two mediocre tournaments, scoring three typical goals against Holland and Czech Republic. He would now renew his rivalry with the Barca crew in this different setting. The limits of Spain’s play were revealed against Portugal in the semi-final, who dug in and worked as a team all around the ground. Spain would work the ball to David Silva out on the flank, forty metres away from goal – and there would be no one forward of him to pass the ball to. The match was intriguing rather than entertaining – again, as usual for Spain – with only two chances to score in 120 minutes. In the last minute of the 90 Portugal led a four-on-two break for goal. A good pass from Meireles to Ronaldo would have ended it for Spain, but Ronaldo was forced to wait for the ball to catch up to him rather than take it in his stride. From a now standing start he blazed over the top. One pass can decide everything.
So can hundreds and hundreds of little Spanish passes. Spain had finally worn Portugal out by extra time but they gutted it out to the penalties. A new type of Spanish greatness kicked in here. Xabi Alonso missed Spain’s first penalty – the third high-profile penalty miss of his career, for which he never had to pay any sort of price, while players like Robben and Roberto Baggio are taken to the cleaners for missing one. But Casillas saved Portugal’s first too. The shootout took a turn for the weird when Spain’s central defenders took penalties three and four, and both Pique into the corner and Ramos with a chip scored beautifully. Nani bizarrely interrupted Bruno Alves halfway through the walk of doom for Portugal’s penalty number three, and Bruno Alves promptly missed the hastily rescheduled penalty four. Then Cesc, a consistent utility man for Spain despite his issues with Barcelona, the one who had begun it all with the winning penalty against Italy in 2008, was given a chance to repeat history and dramatically scored off the left post and into the right inside netting. They had apparently all begged coach Del Bosque for penalty number five, something that definitely wouldn’t have been happening pre-2008.
Spain were in another final but at that moment it felt weird, like they just happened to be there by chance, which given the nature of penalty shootouts was perfectly true. Still, in their compulsive but futile attacking they were perversely proving ever impossible to score against, Casillas mopping up on the few occasions the opponent could get the ball. Spain were conceding fewer and fewer goals with every tournament, lights out after shaky openings in both 2010 and 2012 and conceding none at all in their ten knockout matches in 2008, 2010 and 2012.
The runners-up final
If we accept that they were naturally a cut above everyone else, the second semi-final between Germany and Italy was the standout match of the tournament, a type of ‘best of the rest’ final for the runners-up. Germany had historically struggled against Italy, whose current incarnation was somewhat transitional but who as always worked hard for each other and featured covertly skilled players. Germany began by threatening Italy, but the entire match turned on defender Mats Hummels oddly allowing forward Antonio Cassano to wriggle right through him – he overcommitted on a steal around Cassano’s side – and put in a centre for Mario Balotelli to put home a close-range header after twenty minutes.
Germany, possibly the second-best team in the world, were something of a rabble after that, particularly terrible in allowing Montolivo – a half-German Italian, incidentally – to stroll out of defence after a German corner kick and deliver a straightforward long ball that put Balotelli through on goal. From the edge of the box he drilled into the top corner.
Italy were generally positive in this tournament, although not prolific, only winning outright twice and scoring six goals in six games. Balotelli, an Italian adopted as a baby from Ghana, was the first black player to feature prominently for Italy. He could be an all-round forward at times like these, but his temperament could frequently be called into question for his various clubs. In any case, he scored half of Italy’s goals at Euro 2012 and was the Italian on whom the cameras were always focused in the final.
Italy played a classic game. Pirlo illustrated their dominance with a 360-degree pirouette around a German midfielder, prompting those I was watching the match with to call him a freak. Potentially player of the tournament, his penalty against England had been notable not so much for the chip (everyone is doing that these days) as for the disdainful cold-bloodedness on his bearded face.
Germany did what they should have done pre-tournament, replacing their ineffective forward line with the new boys like Reus, who for ten minutes after halftime was a sensational threat. Then Italy took control again and blew numerous easy chances for what should have been a 3-0 victory.
There was an artificially tense ending when Germany, who after the Reus cameo seldom looked like scoring, were given a free goal on a handball. It was fascinating to see Ozil take it. He was their star, and that’s what stars do, they take penalties; but it was an oddly definitive action for a man who was never particularly one for the statisticians, being more of a ghost who pops up here and there unobtrusively. His penalty was clean.
It was a terrible, terrible result for Germany, as those players’ barren run went on and the critics rounded on them. They had simply not delivered on the one day for which they had been preparing for two years, if it’s a given that they would get to the semis by default. Of course it was a terrific one for Italy, but that would be wiped out a few days later.
A day of perfection
The Spain-Italy final turned into the perfect storm for a number of reasons. It was an opponent against whom Spain had struggled for so long, but, one match away from their unprecedented treble (and the first team to ever retain the European Championship), were able to show how much they had outgrown the past by brushing Italy aside, by a score unseen in modern finals – 4-0, a score unseen in modern key internationals, period.
Everything went right. Iniesta’s through pass to the goal line was cut back brilliantly by Cesc directly onto Silva’s head. The ball could have flown anywhere but today it was top corner material, and as against France Spain had opened the match with an intricately-worked header despite being a team of dwarves. On halftime Xavi showed who was still the world’s passing expert, timing his through ball to the last second that the charging Jordi Alba was onside. Once he had finished it was time to celebrate for Spain, who whatever their unbreached defensive record in ten knockout matches had only once before scored more than one goal in those games, not counting a last-minute penalty against France; living on a fine edge but always succeeding.
Italy had played a relatively adept first hour, but it was ironic that by not playing a clichéd lockdown style they opened themselves up to a humiliation at the end, conceding two goals in the last ten minutes and giving Torres a worthless Golden Boot off the bench. Di Natale, the only man who had scored on Spain all tournament five long matches ago, could have reignited the match and burst Spain’s classic record – ten knockout matches from 2008-12, no goals conceded – but Casillas stood up as he had against Robben in 2010, a calmer, more trustworthy influence than he had been at the World Cup.
One internet commenter chauvinistically stated anyone who didn’t believe the 4-0 (and treble) was the biggest football story of 2012 was kidding himself. I have to agree. I wonder how Spain did it, with a bunch who never physically imposed themselves, whose every match was seemingly a desperate slog in which they constantly played beneath the level they should have been reaching, who aside from Villa in 2010 had no penetration (“They can barely put together an attack”, I more specifically stated) and whose defenders were never exactly Nesta and Cannavaro, even less so in 2012 without Puyol. They were one-dimensional, more and more with every tournament, but that one dimension was done supremely. There has seldom been a better performance in a tournament final. For once they had ditched safety-first and gone for it.
When Brazil thrashed them a year later it made me wonder if Spain had simply won for lack of better opposition; they never had to face, say, a Drogba (a powerful forward) up front. There was a joke afterwards about Tiki-Taka Airlines: the airline whose Madrid to New York route went through Barcelona, Milan, Barcelona, Valencia, Marseille, back to Madrid, and eventually the flight would break down halfway across the Atlantic through lack of support near the destination, would go back to Madrid and start all over again, with the crew exasperatingly not even caring if they ever got to New York (and yet it would still arrive first again, and again, and again). Nonetheless, I still have the feeling Spain’s three consecutive tournament wins are the definitive occurrence of my time paying attention to football.