The harsh fact for Spain is that they probably shouldn’t be in the final on Sunday. But the beauty of football is that they might be.
There’s good reason to look at the two sides who’ll battle for the ball, wrestle for midfield control at Wembley on Tuesday night and think: “Azzurri, not La Roja.”
That’s more of a compliment for Roberto Mancini’s Italy than any kind of disparagement for a Spain team which, let’s face it, is downright fun to watch. You’ll either get them banging their heads off their fists in frustrated fury while they miss every imaginable type of goal opportunity — or running absolutely rampant while they put rivals to the sword.
It’s not just about the common belief that we’re watching a kind of modern evangelistic miracle when Mancini’s Italy play — the one time pragmatic, prosaic, pugnacious “anti-football” nation now singing gospel and tra-la-la-ing as they flick the ball from blue shirt to pink boot … frolicking around while opponents gasp for breath and applaud Italian audacity.
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All that, I think, is actually true. Italy are like a good dose of wasabi on your food — they synapses are cleared, your head explodes with shocked enjoyment and, pretty soon, you want more. Azzurri wasabi.
What should make the seasoned watcher a little conservative about Spain reaching their third European Championship final in just 13 years is the fact that they are, like wasabi, a little green.
La Roja verde let’s say. I think Luis Enrique’s team are a little ahead of schedule. Bursting with belief, talent, unity, fun, enjoyment and not without guys who’ve fought football’s big battles (for their clubs) they’re not “made men” as a group yet.
They’re also extremely … nice. As a group of guys, once you stop admiring their admirable technical skills, the fact that almost all of them are multi-cultural, linguistically talented, winners at club level the fact is that they don’t really, with some small exceptions, resemble the things which make, for example, Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci special. Nor do they have quite as much of the steely hardness which elevated Carles Puyol, Sergio Ramos, Xabi Alonso, Gerard Pique and David Villa above the simple fact that they were special footballers and gifted athletes.
This is no kind of criticism. I think that the seeds planted here and during the Nations League campaign have begun to suggest that Spain can have a realistic charge at the World Cup in 2022. They also have a semifinal of that Nations League, against Italy — who else — in the autumn and win lose or draw here you’d think that La Roja will be better equipped, better experienced to try and win that one.
But the kind of battle scars that Chiellini and Bonucci boast — well there’s perhaps only Cesar Azpilicueta, Jordi Alba and Sergio Busquets who resemble them.
If you add to that the fact that Italy have looked much more likely to finish a good percentage of their goal chances (I reckon they make fewer but tuck more of them away) plus the fact that they circulate the ball beautifully and in Nicolo Barella and Jorginho have two vastly underrated footballers — well, Spain have a job on their hands.
The mad thing about football is that if Italy stutter and if Luis Enrique’s team “uncork the Cava” as they did against Slovakia and Croatia then it’s perfectly feasible that we will see an upset.
A lot is being made of the fact that Italy, under Mancini, are like a twin footballing soul to Spain.
They demand the ball, they’ll bully you off the ball, they don’t want to play “percentage” football — they want to dominate possession, boss the match and batter you with goals if possible.
That means the neutral, particularly the neutral who understands and appreciates technical football, is in for a treat.
Not a lot is being made, however, of the fact that Italy don’t often have to face a team which wants to play like they do.
Across the vast panorama of their huge unbeaten run it’s a fact that not Bosnia and Herzogovina, Moldova, Poland, Estonia, Finland, Armenia, Greece, Liechtenstein, Northern Ireland, San Marino, Bulgaria or Lithuania offered them either the level or the specific kind of examination Spain will.
With some skin in the game, because I’d love La Roja to win this tournament, I’m talking some encouragement from that fact.
I’m sorry that Leonardo Spinazzola is injured and not playing. But not as sorry, it appears, as the Spain coach.
“I wish he’d never got injured and could play at Wembley because the way I understand it, the more great players on the pitch the better for football,” Luis Enrique said on Monday night.
Nevertheless, no matter how well Emerson adapts you’d guess that Spain — via Ferran Torres or Gerard Moreno or perhaps even Marcos Llorente — will probe and press and see if the Chelsea player who only managed seven starts in four different competitions for his club this last season is ready.
One fact remains stark. Beyond the quality of the football we might see between these two Mediterranean maestros there are old-school routes to winning a semifinal.
Set plays and headers for example. Spain haven’t simply conceded headed goals against Poland and Croatia they’ve offered scoring chances over and again in most of their matches — a plethora of them against the Swiss. If you do the same to a team where big, bad, buccaneers like Bonucci and Chiellini love to rampage, love to bash home headed goals — well you’re playing with fire.
All in all I can’t rid myself of the idea that Spain are more than adequate to match Italy’s play and that this, finally, might be a match where they win the easy way — tucking away the chances with clinical glee. The evidence just doesn’t support me.
What is a racing certainty, stronger still than the favouritism the bookies will undoubtedly hand to Italy, is that this is a football occasion not to be missed. One where talent and technique will be kings. Not just “Viva Espana!” this time but “Viva el futbol!“