Sunday’s Euro 2012 final will see a battle for Mediterranean Sea supremacy as the pre- tournament favorites from Spain face the upstart Italian squad. Neither team rolls into here after the semifinal performance that was expected.
Spain was outplayed by Portugal and was very lucky to escape with a win. You can debate whether Italy dominated the Germans or Germany lost the game with bad play, but the clear fact is that the Italians overwhelmed a team that few expected them to beat.
Now Spain will seek its second European Championship, and second consecutive, while Italy will look to win their second and their first since 1968.
We have actually had a bit of a preview of this final already. For the fourth time since 1988 the Euro finalists also met in earlier play. Both teams emerged from Group C after round robin action, so the sides have already met once in this tournament in the opening game of their group play.
It was a very fast-paced, exciting game, though it didn’t resolve much in terms of what we could expect now. Italy took the lead 61 minutes into the game and seemed to have the edge in confidence and momentum, but the Spaniards cancelled out that advantage just three minutes later. Nothing was resolved the rest of the way, and the game ended in a draw.
At the time it was easy to conclude that Spain had forced the conclusion with lackadaisical play more than Italy had earned the result. Now we have a chance to see if that was fair.
The final game of Euro 2012 will take place on Sunday, July 1, at 2:45 p.m. EST in Kiev, Ukraine. It’s the same stadium in which Italy beat England in the quarterfinals, so the Italians will have an edge in familiarity in this one.
In the view of the oddsmakers the two sides here are much closer than in the two semifinals. Neither game looked like they expected, though, so we could really see something unexpected here based on that logic.
Spain is favored at +110 on the moneyline, with the draw at +240 and Italy close behind at +260. The point spread is at ‘pick’, with Spain at -200 and Italy at +155. The total is set at 2.0, with the ‘under’ favored at -125 compared to -105 for the ‘over’.
How they got here
Spain was almost universally expected to make it this far, and that’s just what they have done. You have to give them credit for that, but it would be easy to make the argument that the Spaniards haven’t looked as sharp or unbeatable as they are capable of being.
They won Group C, but opened with that draw against Italy, overwhelmed a hapless Ireland, then had much more trouble with Croatia than they should have. Their quarterfinal against
France was a 2-0 win that was about as easy as expected, but they were not the best team in their semi against Portugal.
Throughout the tournament they have been a step short of their best, and it’s hard to know for sure why. Perhaps they are feeling entitled — all the success has made them feel that they are destined to have more success. Maybe their hunger is diminished after two big tournament wins in a row. It could be that opponents have a better idea of what to expect and what tricks they have up their sleeves.
Whatever the issue is, the next time we see Spain play as well as they possibly can will be the first time all tournament.
In a tournament that could be accused of being a bit boring because of how true to form it had played out, Italy qualifies as by far the biggest surprise of the month. Coming into the tournament it was hard to consider them an elite contender given their deficiencies, the general funk the program has been in lately, and the distraction of the match-fixing scandal that has rocked the Italian domestic league that a lot of these players play in.
Their preliminary play did little to ease those concerns — their draws against Croatia and Spain were solid and their win against Ireland was a foregone conclusion, but they did not make a strong statement of strength. Their penalty kicks win over England in the quarters was similarly sound but not overwhelming.
But then came the semis. Italy was totally dominant in the opening half and cruised to a 2-0 advantage at the break. The Germans were confused and frustrated from the start, and if you didn’t know better you would have guessed from watching that Italy was the overwhelming favorite in the game.
It was wildly impressive, but was it a fluke?
For Italy it is again all about Gianluigi Buffon. He’s the best goalkeeper in international soccer right now, and he has been brilliant in this tournament. He instills the team with massive confidence because they know that he is there to provide a crucial last line of defense. He’s a spiritual leader as well as a defensive force.
Spain’s strength is what it has been throughout their four years of success — incredible depth. They have several ways to score, many players capable of smothering defense, and substitutes who can fill in without any let-up in quality. They are as good as any team on the top end, and much better the further you go down the roster.
For Italy Spain’s depth and skill is their issue. They don’t have the talent to match blow-for-blow here. Of course, that was also the case against Germany and that wasn’t a factor. The Italians need to find ways to get crafty or creative or they will be in trouble.
Spain’s biggest problem could be the psyche of its players. The Spaniards have to be feeling immense pressure because they have not lost a tournament elimination game for so long, and because they are expected to win again. They know what they are facing here, but it would be
easy for them to second guess or lose focus — especially if the Italians can strike early.
Predictions and picks
Spain is clearly the better team and will win if both teams play their best. I have been uneasy from the start with their focus, though, and question their intensity and hunger. Italy was so impressive against Germany, and they have absolutely nothing to lose here — they are playing with house money. I’m going to go out on a limb and predict another Italian upset. International soccer seems due for another shocking result.
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