Italy should not be underestimated. But they must no give up the midfield battle and allow themselves to be overrun
According to Jürgen Klinsmann, the German language does not have an equivalent word or phrase for "bogey team". Well, after what happened in Warsaw on Thursday maybe it is time one was introduced – "Italy". Yet again the Azzurri got the better of a team who are used to winning at a major tournament and, as a result, it is they who will face Spain in the final of Euro 2012. It is a surprise outcome but not an undeserved one.
Italy have grown as a team during this tournament. All round they have been fantastic, with Andrea Pirlo the sublime orchestrator of most of their attacks and Antonio Cassano and Mario Balotelli an unbelievably good striking pair. I have also been impressed with their defence, who have played like an old fashioned England back-line in terms of getting their heads, feet and toes in when needed. They have then passed the ball calmly and under pressure with their defensive headers also often directed towards a team-mate.
Italy's defending, in general, has been very clever. Rarely have either of the full-backs or centre-backs been caught out of position and they have all tackled impressively, not diving in but making well-timed interceptions. The centre‑halves, who against Germany were Andrea Barzagli and Leonardo Bonucci, have also combined well to stop opposition attacks from developing, which is perhaps not a surprise given they are team-mates at Juventus. More often than not one has stepped out to hold up the man on the ball while the other, or another team‑mate, has made the tackle. Such smart play has prevented Italy giving away many free-kicks in and around their penalty area.
This, then, is a team that should not be underestimated and if they score first on Sunday then I can see Spain facing a hard task of getting back into the game. For me, Italy's defence is now playing far too intelligently to be unpicked by Spain's striker-less system, which Vicente del Bosque is likely to go with having done so when Spain met Italy in their opening group game. The Italians will not be too concerned by only midfielders, albeit world-class ones, coming on to them and will make sure they do not allow the likes of Andrés Iniesta, David Silva and Cesc Fábregas to suck them out of position. They will keep their shape and instruct the midfielders in front of them to pick up the men on the ball and then work on making sure they are in the right positions should a man in red decide to move into a striker's position.
That certainly is how I would approach a team that lines up like Spain. For me, facing a side without a recognised striker would not be a major concern, I would be happy to pick off midfield runners all day long. That is not to say their style of play is not impressive, but if you are a top defender then you really should be able to cope.
Should they go 1-0 down then Spain would almost definitely have to bring a recognised striker, most likely Fernando Torres, off the bench. Against this Italian defence, once it has a lead to protect, the Spanish would need someone who could go in behind and cause a different, more direct problem. Torres would make Barzagli and Bonucci think in a way that could unsettle them and turn the match back in the favour of the world and European champions.
This is an approach which almost worked for Spain when they faced Italy in the group stages. They passed Cesare Prandelli's side to death, tired them out and then brought Torres on to kill them off, something he had plenty of chances to do. It could well be a case of same again on Sunday with the Chelsea striker this time potentially proving the difference.
This match really is too close to call. Spain are undoubtedly the better side but, as said, if Italy score first then it will prove very difficult – too difficult, even – for Del Bosque's men to recover. As long as Italy don't give up the midfield battle and allow themselves to be overrun in that area than I can see them winning and preventing Spain from becoming the first team to win three consecutive international tournaments.
Overall Euro 2012 has been enjoyable, although I found most of the games during the opening week hesitant affairs when it was obvious the sides involved were mainly worried about getting through the group stages. The quarter‑final games were a lot more interesting, particularly from a tactical point of view.
Sadly, however, when I look back at the tournament I will mainly remember the racist abuse directed by supporters and which has led to some of the countries involved, most recently Russia and Spain, receiving fines from Uefa. It has also been a shame to see police using plastic bullets and tear gas to control fans, as was the case ahead of Poland's game against Russia. All we can hope for is that these ugly events are put well and truly in the shade by a final to remember.
Sol Campbell has donated his fee for this column to his foundation Kids Go Live, http://www.kidsgolive.com