Italy were brushed aside by a rampant Spain, who become the first side to retain the European Championship. Who needs strikers?
Four years and nine days ago, at the Ernst-Happel-Stadion in Vienna, Cesc Fabregas whistled a penalty past Gianluigi Buffon's lugs, and Spain started to believe. The spot kick put Spain into the semi finals of Euro 2008, securing victory over bogey side Italy in a major tournament for the first time since their first-ever meeting, at the 1920 Olympics. The rest is recent history, with Spain going on to win Euro 2008, then following it up by scooping the World Cup.
Today, one way or another, Spain's journey comes full circle. If they see off Italy again, the quest is complete: they become the first country to retain the European Championship, and the first to win three major international tournaments on the bounce. But if they don't - and Italy land their second European Championship title, their first since 1968 - the story finishes with a bittersweet symmetry, an almost perfect narrative arc.
There's also a delightful role-reversal riff being played out. Spain, for years haphazard modernists, are all about control these days. Meanwhile, as they've been honing tiki-takanaccio almost to absurd perfection, the Italians, so long the masters of the dark arts of defence, have taken to sashaying around upfield in the swashbuckling style, individualists to the fore. Attackinaccio? It's all very strange, whatever it is. It's Bizarro Football.
There's one other factor to be taken into consideration, and it could have an influence on tonight's match. There's an increasing sense that while Spain are respected for their brilliance, they're rarely loved. Do they fancy winning a few hearts and minds as well as the silverware? No reason why they should care what anyone else thinks, of course - the pots are reward enough - but perhaps they fancy a few hugs, kisses and admiring glances, too? If all their talent comes out accordingly with attacking intent, we could be about to witness a signature performance, a document for the ages - the one and only thing Spain's trophy-gathering reign is lacking.
So, basically, I'm looking for a few reasons to believe this could become a stone-cold classic. Now can you blame anyone for that? Goals, please!
History: It's on Italy's side. They might have been knocked out of Euro 2008 by Spain, but it was only after a penalty shootout, so the official records still show that the Spanish have only registered one victory in a major finals over the Azzurri: their first-ever meeting at the 1920 Olympics. Italy responded to that loss by thrashing Spain 7-1 at the 1928 Games. They then knocked Spain out of the 1934 World Cup, the legendary Inter striker Giuseppe Meazza scoring the winner in a quarter-final replay. They beat Spain 1-0 in the Euro 88 group stages, Gianluca Vialli the scorer. And two-goal Roberto Baggio did for them in the quarter finals of the 1994 World Cup in Boston, with a little help from Julio Salinas. Not only that, when lots were drawn to decide whether Spain or Turkey would go to the 1958 World Cup, a small blindfolded boy selected the Turks. The lad was, needless to say, Italian. That victory at Euro 2008 was a load off, that's for sure.
More recent history: The well-matched 1-1 draw in the groups, three weeks ago to the day.
Kick off: 7.45pm BST, 9.45pm EEST (local time in Kyiv).
Still no striker for Spain, they simply don't care what you think, and as reigning world and European champions, you can hardly blame them: Casillas, Arbeloa, Pique, Sergio Ramos, Jordi Alba, Xavi, Busquets, Alonso, Silva, Fabregas, Iniesta. Subs: Valdes, Albiol, Javi Martinez, Juanfran, Pedro, Torres, Negredo, Mata, Llorente, Santi Cazorla, Jesus Navas, Reina.
Italy replace Federico Balzaretti with Ignazio Abate: Buffon, Abate, Barzagli, Bonucci, Chiellini, Pirlo, Marchisio, Montolivo, De Rossi, Balotelli, Cassano.
Subs: Sirigu, Maggio, Ogbonna, Thiago Motta, Balzaretti, Di Natale, Giaccherini, Borini, Giovinco, Diamanti, Nocerino, De Sanctis.
Not Howard Webb: Pedro Proenca (Portugal)
The waiting is nearly over. The teams are in the tunnel. Favourites Spain, la Furia Roja, are in their red tops and blue shorts. Italy, gli Azzurri, in their trademark azure. Pensive looks all round. The teams take to the field, trotting past the Henri Delaunay Trophy. Mario Balotelli trots out about 20 seconds after everyone else. Oh Mario! It has to be said that he doesn't look particularly fussed. "At the end of the Spain - Portugal semi-final, my elder brother grumbled that watching Spain is 'like going to the dentist; you know it's good for you, but it's not a particularly enjoyable experience'," reports Nick Smith. "I wondered if your good readers might be able to suggest other real-life team analogies. England as merchant bankers perhaps?"
The national anthems: Italy's first up.
Revolutionary biscuits of Italy
Rise up out of your box
You have nothing to lose but your wafers
Yum yum yum yum yum
And then Spain's, which famously has no words. Do these fit?
Once I had my share of losing
For they locked me on a chain
Yes they tried to break my power
Oh I still can feel the pain
Una paloma blanca
I'm just a bird in the sky
Una paloma blanca
Over the mountains I fly
No one can take my freedom away
Spain, the champions, receive guests, Italy walking down the line to shake hands. Then the swapping of pennants, the tossing of coins, and the shaking of hands. Buffon wins the toss. "Let's talk about paradoxes: Spain are alternately alleged to be tiki-totalitarians and slackers," notes Philip Podolsky. "The implication that one can be perceived as both Joe Stalin and Jeffrey Lebowski is nothing short of wonderful."
Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one... kick off! Spain get the ball rolling.
13 seconds: Spain still have the ball. They're killing this game!
14 seconds: Spain go expansive, and lose the ball. Maybe they've had a point.
2 min: Italy diddle around down the left. Cassano causes some bother on the corner of the box, the ball breaking into the centre. Pirlo latches onto it, and has a dig, but it's hopeless, miles wide right and high. Still, Italy will be happy to have seen the ball early on, and spent a bit of time in the Spanish half.
4 min: Italy saw more of the ball for the first three minutes, but Spain finally get a chance to stroke it around. Silva dances down the inside-right channel, and so nearly finds Alonso on the edge of the D. Italy crowd the ball back towards Buffon, Chiellini eventually hacking away. A fairly open start, this. "Has there ever been a player with such a contrasting record of success at international and club level but in the opposite direction from that you'd normally find?" wonders David Wall of young Cesc Fabregas. "He's poison for whichever club he plays for, going pot-less for years at Arsenal and then 'co-incidentally' turning up at Barcelona at the very moment their invincibility cracks. If Wenger had known about his deal with the devil he'd surely have packed him off much sooner than he did, though it might have been more difficult to find willing takers."
5 min: Chiellini strokes a long ball down the inside-left channel. It's the sort of rake that did for Germany a couple of times. Balotelli is after it, and appears to have the jump on Ramos, but the Spanish defender gets his head to it and clears. Balotelli goes down under the challenge, and he doesn't appear to have enjoyed the journey to terra firma too much. No huge drama, though.
6 min: A free kick to Spain, 35 yards out. Sergio Ramos looks for the top left corner, and just about finds the top left corner of the stand behind.
7 min: Spain look in the mood, especially Sergio Ramos. Jordi Alba skedaddles down the left and loops a cross into the centre, forcing Bonucci to knock the ball behind for a corner on the right. The ball's swung in, Ramos meeting it with a powerful, Carrollesque header. It's over the bar, though. That good start by Italy already seems a long time ago, though remember they were second best to Germany in the opening exchanges of the semi, and look what happened there.
9 min: The Spanish fans are shouting "ole!" a lot as their team flick it around with insouciant glee. Xavi has a dig from distance, though he should have fed the ball out right to Arbeloa, who was in acres. The shot's blocked easily.
11 min: Xavi, having warmed up, sends a rising shot from the edge of the area fizzing inches over the crossbar. That's a wonderful effort, and a beautiful sliderule pass from Fabregas that set him up, too. Spain may not have selected a striker, but they've not been shy on shooting so far. "Can you - or someone in the pod later tonight - explain why there are SO many empty seats in the stadium for a European Championship Final?" asks Owen Cameron. "It just seems bizarre this could happen with (literally) millions around Ukraine and the rest of Europe who would've loved to be inside the stadium." No idea. And it is a shame, yes. It's just like watching Euro 96.
14 min: GOAL!!! AND THIS HAD BEEN COMING!!! Spain 1-0 Italy. Absolute brilliance by Fabregas, who after a period of tasty tiki-taka chases after a pass rolled down the inside-right channel. He reaches the byline under pressure from Chiellini, and whips a high ball back into the centre, where Silva, level with the right-hand post, pings an instant header into the top-left corner. What an outstanding finish, and it's no more than Spain deserve for their high-octane start.
16 min: Italy respond well. Balotelli buys a cheap free kick just to the left of the Spanish D. Pirlo's free kick is deflected out for a corner on the left, from which Casillas fingertips the abll from the onrushing De Rossi's head. Superb play all round.
17 min: Another corner for Italy, this time from the right, and Ramos does well to knock the ball behind with Chiellini lurking. And from that corner, the same Italian is denied by a timely punch clear from Casillas. This is the first time Italy have been behind, and they're coping well.
20 min: Chiellini looks to have some sort of problem with his knee. He slices horribly, allowing Alonso to make off with the ball down the right. With three team-mates in the middle, and Italy light on numbers, this could be a second goal for Spain, but Alonso's pullback into the centre is well read by Bonucci. But Italy fail to clear, and soon enough Iniesta is sashaying into the area down the left. Pirlo sticks out a leg and robs the ball wonderfully, then hacks out of play, allowing Italy to make the change: Chiellini limps off, Balzaretti coming on in his stead. Never nice to see someone limp out of a big game so early.
24 min: Pique picks up a booking for a ludicrous lunge on Cassano. He didn't make contact, but he was late and the Italian was lucky he managed to get out of the way. Vicente del Bosque appears livid, but he can't really complain. "Just had a fully fledged ITV style TV outage here in New Zealand," reports Ray Burkhill. "Screen went green, then cut to advert for X-men first class. Picture then comes back and Spain have scored. Can this be coincidence?" The feed's gone down in the US, too, according to Julie Stricker. Rai viewers will be wishing the same thing has happened to them.
27 min: A magnificent powerful run by Balzaretti down the left. He swings the ball towards the far post, where Balotelli waits to hammer a header home. Casillas comes out of nowhere to tip the ball away from Balotelli's noggin, then smothers. For a split second, that looked like a sure-fire equaliser.
29 min: Down the inside-left, a Cassano dragback sends Arbeloa skidding hysterically along the floor on his buttocks. Cassano shoots through a thicket for the near post; the ball gets through, but Casillas claims. Italy aren't taking this lying down. It's a good contest, this.
30 min: From 30 yards out, Pirlo drags a fairly lame free kick wide of goal.
33 min: The lively Cassano - who has had a good Euro 2012 away from the microphone - has a lash from 25 yards, after cutting in from the right. His fierce shot is parried well by Casillas, and Italy can't take advantage of the loose ball. Italy have been the better team since the goal.
35 min: For the first time in a wee while, Spain begin to roll it around in the Italian half. The unfairly maligned Arbeloa works the ball well down the right, before cutting inside and thinking about a shot. He doesn't bother, moving it back, allowing Xavi to stroke it towards Silva down the inside left. He nearly breaks through, but while this is a new attacking Italy, it's still Italy, and they know a thing or two about snuffing out an attack. Snuff!
38 min: Balotelli picks the ball up on the left-hand touchline. He drifts inside, exchanges passes with Montolivo, and looks for the top-right corner from 30 yards. The ball flies way over the bar, but that was a decent move, if not a particularly great shot. "If the Premiership is the best league in the world, like what we're always being told, how come a) England were stuffed and b) only two players tonight play in England (Silva and Balotelli)?" asks Matthew Cobb, who I guess knows the answers to his own questions.
41 min: OUT OF NOTHING, ANOTHER SUPERB GOAL!!! Spain 2-0 Italy. Italy were on the attack, but Spain crowd them out of the ball. They stroke it around the back awhile - then launch what's almost a route-one style goal for Spain. Well, a route three or four goal, anyway. Casillas launches it down the left. A header. A pass inside. Then Xavi rolls a perfectly weighted pass down the inside-left for Jordi Alba, who has been bombing down the channel and springs clear, slotting a calm, considered finish past Buffon and into the bottom left. A flick of the left boot into the corner. Could this be the killer blow already? If it is, it's such an exquisite one.
44 min: Again Italy do their best to bounce back, Montolivo having a larrup from distance after coming in from the right. Not for the first time, Casillas parries and Italy fail to latch onto the loose ball.
45 min: Barzagli galoots Iniesta to the floor as the 2010 World Cup winner looks to break clear down the left. With Fabregas clear in the middle, that was do-or-die cynicism. He's booked. From the free kick, Silva cuts across the ball to send it fizzing straight down Buffon's throat. Italy need the half-time whistle to regroup. "Has there ever been a man more apt for the word 'sashaying' than Iniesta?" wonders Duncan Smith. "It's like Alberto Tomba, sliding, elegant, but a bit wrong physically."
HALF TIME: Spain 2-0 Italy. And there it is. Spain have been magnificent. Thing is, Italy have brought something to the party as well; they've just been outplayed by this chillingly good side. "Who needs strikers when your left back scores goals like that?" wonders Matthew Carpenter, not unreasonably.
HALF-TIME ADVERTISEMENT to hopefully cheer any Italian fans up, though admittedly it might also push them over the edge:
I'm not really sure what to make of this. It contains some characters that'd go down well in the offices of Gazzetta dello Sport - a comedy Scotsman in a kilt, an amusing Chinaman, and an extra from It Ain't Half Hot Mum - but it was 1962 I suppose. And I quite like how they take the best part of a minute to get to the point. (For the record, they start by asking each other whether they should invent the car or the train, but as these have already been invented, decide to throw a Lambretta together instead, using their special machine.)
Anyway, while glamorous women in Italy were doing the Lambret Twist, back in the UK, poor downtrodden mum was doing the washing and searching around for dead animals. Different worlds, different worlds.
Anyway, next up it's the London Olympics, which begin on... ah hold on, this isn't over yet. Italy certainly need to score next, mind you. "When did Tom Hollander start playing left back for Spain?" wonders Colin Ward. "And when did he learn to finish like that? Having a successful BBC sitcom and a burgeoning Hollywood career is obviously not enough for some." What was his character in The Thick of It called again? I'm sure the name's on the tip of every Italian fan's tongue. Anyway, we're off again, and Cassano has made way for Di Natale.
46 min: Di Natale's first touch is to whumph a header just over the bar from 10 yards, Abate finding him with a superb cross. That was a decent chance.
47 min: Fabregas drags a shot inches wide left from the edge of the D. Buffon may not have got to that were it on target, he was leaning the other way.
48 min: Wow, this is some start to the half. Fabregas twists and turns down the right, reaching the byline and selling Balzaretti a couple of dummies. He nearly finds Silva at the near post, and then after a scramble is close to beating Buffon. But the ball's hacked clear.
49 min: Silva tries to hook the ball past Bonucci in the Italian area. The ball hits the defender's hand, but there's no intention, and the referee's having none of it. You've seen them given, but equally that would have been harsh, the players were so close together. We move on without incident. Italy are living dangerously here.
51 min: This is high-octane stuff. Montolivo slips the ball down the inside-left channel for Di Natale, who hammers a shot goalwards from 12 yards. Casillas parries spectacularly. The ball falls back at Di Natale's feet. He looks for Balotelli's head in the middle, but his chip inside is plucked from the sky by the keeper. Great play all round. "If this performance is anything to go by then Spain are the street-hustlers of the football world," suggests David Wall. "They've lulled all of us dupes into thinking they're dull and running out of ideas then as soon as we agree to play hunt-the-queen they happily relieve us of the contents of our wallets."
54 min: Spain are threatening a third. Iniesta lifts a clever pass down the middle, splitting the Italian defence in half, but the through ball hits Fabregas on the back, and the chance is gone. So unlucky.
56 min: Now it's Pirlo's turn to lift a clever pass down the middle, but his scoop for Di Natale is a wee bit too strong. Spain go up the other end, and after a few passes, Iniesta attempts to bust open Italy's offside trap with a backheel. He's not far away from finding Silva, either. That would have been preposterously good.
57 min: Italy make their third change, Motta coming on for Montolivo.
58 min: A free kick for Italy down the right. Pirlo lifts it to the far post, but Casillas palms clear. Balotelli picks up the ball and launches it towards the top right, but his effort flies over. "As far as I can see this game is just a series of intricate passes, punctuated by the odd goal and amazing bursts of skill," moans Ian Bahrami. "Yawn. When's the Premier League start again?"
59 min: The opening scorer Silva is hooked for Pedro. He's not particularly happy about it, but off he must trot. "I called my Dad at half time," begins Tom Young. "In discussing Spain's dominance of international football he managed to compare Xavi, Iniesta, Fabregas et al to Steve 'Interesting' Davis in the 1980s: 'No one else ever got a look in.' I could not detect any irony through the phone line."
61 min: Well, if this wasn't already over, it pretty much looks like it now. Motta zips after a ball only for his hamstring to ping. He's carted off, straight down the tunnel. After four minutes! I do hope he warmed up properly. Italy have used all their subs, remember. This is now 10 versus 11.
64 min: Balotelli wins a free kick for Italy down the left. Pirlo swings the ball to the far post for Bonucci but, under pressure from Busquets, he can't get his head to the high ball. Italy's only slim, slim chance is from set pieces, you'd have thought. Well, they'll have to be better than that.
67 min: The game's gone a bit flat, as you might expect. Spain must surely think this game is won, while Italy have got the funk on. They look totally deflated, though in fairness Spain's dominance had burst their bubble long ago. "Tom Young's dad was almost right," says Phil Sawyer. "However, I'd say this Spanish team are the equivalent of Phil 'The Power' Taylor. Sometimes you just have to marvel at someone's ability to up their game just as it appears others might be catching up."
70 min: Iniesta sliderules a ball down the left for Pedro, whose cross towards Fabregas is hacked clear at the last by Barzagli. Spain are looking for a third goal, but not with any great urgency. Which is kind of them. "Spain as Steve Davis got me thinking," writes Ray Burkhill. "The closest 1980s snooker match for England would be Tony Meo." Isn't he a bit too exciting for Mr Roy's Special Traffic Cone Set? What about Doug Mountjoy? Rex Williams?
73 min: Fabregas and Pedro diddle their way down the right, one-twoing as they skip. It's a delightful move, which ends with Fabregas reaching the byline and chipping into the centre for Iniesta. But Bonucci heads up in the air, allowing Buffon to pluck the ball from the sky. Spain appear to be upping their game for more goals.
75 min: Fernando Torres, the man who won Euro 2008 for Spain, comes on for Fabregas. "Funny emotions this tournament," writes Lewis James. "A genuinely exciting German side that turned a bit flaky when it mattered. An England team of likeable, honest toilers who didn't get ahead of themselves. Now feeling sorry for Italy. It's not right." And yet it feels so good?
77 min: Italy haven't had the ball in Spain's half for quite some time. This contest is over.
79 min: Pedro is sent scampering free down the right. He over-elaborates with Torres clear in the centre, but manages to pull the ball back for Iniesta, who slides a pass out left to Jordi Alba. The magnificent left back zips into acres, then wheechs a low ball into the area for Jordi, who should score from six yards but somehow sidefoots wide. His blushes are spared by the offside flag.
82 min: According to the official stats, the possession has been exactly 50-50! Abacus Man must have fallen asleep. "Del Bosque will become the first coach to have won the World Cup, European Cup and European Championship" notes Ignacio Hernandez. "You will not hear him say it."
84 min: IF IT'S A EURO FINAL, THEN THERE MUST BE A TORRES GOAL!!! Spain 3-0 Italy. A delightful finish. Italy fanny around in midfield. Xavi pounces, drives forward, and slides a ball down the inside-left channel for Torres. The Chelsea striker opens up his body and sidefoots a ball past Buffon and into the bottom right. This equals the biggest win in a Euro final - West Germany's 3-0 win over USSR - while Torres becomes the first player to score in two of these finals.
86 min: Anyone remember Juan Mata? Here he is! He replaces Iniesta, who sashays off the field. "Turns out the way to keep Pirlo quiet is to be a much better team," notes Matt Dony. "Why didn't England think of that?"
87 min: Spain's stratospheric brilliance is, of course, down to Scotland. Eh? "I can't help but feel that the pioneer of Spain's brave and revolutionary striker-less formation hasn't been given the credit he deserves," writes Alex Marsh.
88 min: THERE GOES WEST GERMANY'S RECORD!!! Spain 4-0 Italy. Torres hares after another Xavi sliderule pass down the inside left. He draws Buffon, before sliding the ball inside to his Chelsea teammate Mata, who clips home. Forget the fact Italy have been down to ten men, Spain were rampant anyway. This has been a majestic display.
90 min: There will be three added minutes of a game long over.
90 min +2: Torres slides the ball into the six-yard box from the left. Sergio Ramos attempts a Lee Sharpeian backheel. Buffon's not having that. Ramos runs off with a very cheeky look on his face, perhaps mindful that he'll get a clip round the lug for his sauce if he's not careful.
SPAIN ARE THE FIRST EUROPEAN CHAMPIONS TO RETAIN THEIR TROPHY, AND THE FIRST TEAM IN HISTORY TO WIN THREE MAJOR INTERNATIONAL TOURNAMENTS IN A ROW!!! Spain 4-0 Italy. That was as comprehensive as it gets. Signature performance? Well, they've got one now. Italy were unfortunate to go down to ten men, but the game was over by then anyway. Spain were rampant, and are celebrating in the manner they deserve. Boring? Eh? Who said that? "John Terry is putting on his Spain kit as we speak," suggests Jan Krcmar.
Incidentally, here's a delicious bonus for Spain, who have copped so much flak for rarely fielding a striker: Fernando Torres has won the golden boot. He's one of several lads on three goals, but as he's rarely featured, he cops the prize as a result of having played the fewest minutes.
Italy - with several players in tears - go up for their runners-up medals. Mario Balotelli had stormed off down the tunnel at the final whistle, but he's calmed down and is back with the rest of the squad. Gianluigi Buffon, head held high and smiling, leads his men up. Giorgio Chiellini, whose final was over almost before it had begun, is in floods, poor chap. Fifa president Michel Platini hangs the silver medals round their necks. It'll feel bitter now, but runners up seemed like a pipe dream for Italy at the beginning of the tournament. They've been magnificent. On another day... on another day.
But they had no answer for this Spanish side, who kept their powder dry for almost the entire tournament, before exploding in spectacularly entertaining style tonight. They trudge up the stairs - winning three trophies in a row takes a fair bit of effort, you know - and receive their gold medals. They crowd round the podium, start jumping up and down with the anticipation of little children on Christmas morning, and eventually Iker Casillas lifts the Henri Delaunay Troophy. SPAIN ARE THE 2012 EUROPEAN CHAMPIONS. Here comes the ticker tape. The tiki-taka-ticker tape...