This feature is a part of RETEUROSPECTIVE
The English saying “all good things come in threes” is phrased a little differently in the Spanish-speaking world. Instead of a direct translation, the Spanish equivalent reads, “there are no twos without three” – and it dominated the buildup, match and aftermath of Spain’s European Championship final against Italy in 2012.
In a way, it summed up this era of dominance for La Roja quite succinctly, from the three international titles they eventually won to the on-pitch triangles that characterised their bewitching brand of football.
Kicking off the much-anticipated final against an outfit that, not long ago, they hadn’t beaten competitively in nearly 80 years, Spain were quick out of the box. Their first shot came from Sergio Ramos who fired a long free-kick high over Gianluigi Buffon’s goal. Then, a little later, the first of many vertical balls through the Italian defence found Jordi Alba. The young full-back failed to find David Silva with his cross and instead won a corner which Ramos again sent over the bar.
La Roja’s first real effort at goal came towards the ten-minute mark. Following a few hopeful pot shots at goal from Iniesta and Xavi, Alba and Cesc Fabregas combined to set up the former who shot from outside the box. Unlike previous efforts that went comfortably above Buffon’s crossbar, the veteran midfielder’s effort whistled just over. Growing ever closer to breaching the veteran Italian’s goal, Spain’s first arrived just a few minutes later.
The move started with Andreas Iniesta slipping a through ball in between the Italian three-man defence to a lurking Fabregas. Standing just outside the six-yard box, the false nine pinged a cross onto the head of Silva for an easy finish.
Kicking off the restart following an unconvincing start, Italy tried to get Mario Balotelli more involved and the strategy quickly paid dividends. Not long after conceding, the Manchester City forward won a free-kick in a dangerous area. He tried to trick the Spanish defence with a fake run-up but the move didn’t have the desired effect, leaving Andrea Pirlo to salvage a corner from the failed training ground move.
Italy continued to push on the set-piece front, their second corner of the evening ending with a Ramos clearance and another corner. This one produced the Azzurri’s best chance of the half, Iker Casillas practically slapping the ball off the head of the onrushing Leonardo Bonucci. Finally building momentum 20 minutes into the game, Italy suffered a major blow when Giorgio Chiellini was forced off with a niggling injury and was replaced by Francesco Balzeretti.
Surviving this Italian renaissance, Spain went back on the offensive when Silva was crowded out by Italian defenders on the edge of the box before he could take a shot. Winning the ball back, Italy countered up the other end of the pitch, working possession out wide to Daniele De Rossi whose cross to Balotelli called Casillas into action once again.
De Rossi was at the heart of Italy’s next attack, launching a long ball from the centre circle to the thus far quiet Antonio Cassano, whose rolling shot from a tight angle Casillas comfortably collected. Moments later, the unpredictable Italian forward sent the Real Madrid shot-stopper diving for a wicked 30-yard effort.
Keen to get back into the game before the end of the first half, Italy continued to push forward, leaving more space at the back for Spain to exploit. With 40 minutes on the clock, Spain cleared another piece of dangerous Italian play, passing the ball back to Casillas.
Spain’s captain fired a high ball which found Fabregas on the right flank. He headed the ball down to Alba, who then passed possession onto Xavi. As Xavi advanced into the Italy half, Alba insinuated himself between the Italian defenders. The eventual pass was spotted by the Spanish commentators five or ten seconds before it even happened. However, by the time the Italians had caught on, it was already too late.
Clear inside the box, Alba, having only made his international debut 11 months beforehand, slotted home his first international goal like a seasoned striker and Italy headed to the dressing room lucky not to have conceded a third.
Cesare Prandelli made a bold change to start the second half, taking off the lukewarm Cassano for Antonio Di Natale. The Udinese frontman didn’t take long to get up to speed, recording his first shot shortly after kick-off. Fabregas responded with Spain’s first effort of the second half, his shot rolling just wide of Buffon’s goal.
An effulgent Fabregas continued to press forward. Receiving a quick counter on the corner of the penalty area, the Spanish number 10 charged to the line and proceeded to beat three Italian defenders with a mazy run before rolling the ball just past Buffon. It seemed destined for Iniesta to slide in Spain’s third, but a last-ditch block saved the Azzurri’s blues.
Amidst all this Spanish pressure, Ricardo Montolivo carved out Italy’s best chance of the game. Receiving the ball a few yards outside of Spain’s penalty box, he played a delightful through ball that cracked the typically resolute Spain defence wide open. From the pass, Di Natale az twice denied by Casillas, with a particularly excellent parry to deny the first effort.
The move would prove Montolivo’s last contribution to the match, as he soon made way for Thiago Motta. In a cruel stroke of misfortune, the Brazilian-born midfielder wasn’t on the pitch long before picking up an injury. With all their substitutions used, Italy had to play the final half-hour with ten men, effectively killing any chance of a comeback.
Spain, meanwhile, showed no sympathy and continued to combine in their trademark triangles, as they searched for a third goal to seal a third successive international title. Pedro, who’d been subbed on for Sliva around the same time Motta came on, was at the centre of the latest attack, but fortunately for the Italians, his point-blank effort was called back for offside.
With 15 minutes left on the clock, Vicente Del Bosque decided to bring on a proper number nine, substituting Fabregas for Fernando Torres. It took Torres just nine minutes to make history. Intercepting a loose ball, Xavi flicked a pass to Torres who became the first player ever to score in two European Championship finals. Four minutes later, he was in the clear once again, dragging Buffon out of position before setting up late sub Juan Mata for Spain’s fourth.
Perhaps at last feeling a tad sorry for their opponents, Spain took their foot off the pedal and saw out three minutes of additional time to seal back-to-back European Championships and an unprecedented hat-trick of international crowns.
Among the jubilant youngsters who’d come rushing off the bench at full-time to instigate the wild celebrations, Spain’s veterans – Ramos and Pique, Xavi, Iniesta and Casillas – strode almost nonchalantly through the frenzy of excitement, satisfied smiles adorning their faces, as they enjoyed an all too familiar scene once again.
By Kristofer McCormack