If Mario Balotelli can be anything like as explosive in the final he has a chance of not only finishing top scorer but of stealing Andrea Pirlo's limelight as the outstanding player
What a wonderful tournament. Everyone seems to be saying so, whether out there or following the action on television at home. Great goals, notable performances, a consistently high standard of football and unexpected results right up until the closing stages. Even the final is being eagerly anticipated, and that has not always been the case in recent years.
Euro 2012's last twist pits the favourites, Spain, on the verge of winning an unprecedented third modern tournament in a row, against the dark horses, Italy, who made such short work of Germany in the semi-final they must have a decent chance of springing one last surprise. Until they ran up against Mario Balotelli the Germans had unquestionably been the team of the tournament, poised to emulate the achievement of Brazil in 1970, no less, by winning every single game in the qualifying cycle then in the finals proper. Yet just as in the 2006 and 2010 World Cups, when they were stopped in the semi-finals by Italy and Spain respectively, Germany have managed to light up the early part of a tournament without being able to keep up the impetus to go all the way.
Traditionally, German sides would do the opposite, go all the way without necessarily winning friends en route, but that role now seems to have been ceded to Spain, who have found a way to win games efficiently and economically by making strikers as surplus to requirements as excitement and entertainment.
As long as Italy have Balotelli they will always be in the market for excitement and entertainment, Antonio Cassano is not far behind, and with midfielders such as Andrea Pirlo, Riccardo Montolivo and Claudio Marchisio becoming more dominant with each passing game it appears Cesare Prandelli's side has mastered the vital tournament trick of saving the best until last. As the final brings together the last two World Cup winners many would argue it is vaguely insulting to describe Italy as dark horses, yet in the context of this most tightly constructed of tournaments it is true to say they have come through from an unpromising position.
The Italy team that so gloriously stamped on German ambitions, don't forget, is the same one that would have been packing its bags for home had Croatia and Spain come to an arrangement in the final Group C game. Even after Balotelli scored to make it 2-0 against Ireland in Poznan a Croatian equaliser in the closing minutes against Spain would have put Italy out, and Gianluigi Buffon and his players spent an agonising few seconds on the pitch at the end waiting to see whether or not celebrations were in order. Italy did not play as well against England as they did against Germany, otherwise they would not have gone two hours without scoring a goal, and though they started with an encouraging draw against Spain, they were not particularly impressive in their group games against Croatia and Ireland.
That, according to Prandelli, was because it is easy to raise your game against Spain, especially if containment is your main concern and a draw is considered a satisfactory result. It is much more difficult to go out and win a game to order, particularly when you are up against opponents as feisty as Croatia. When Italy could only draw against Croatia they were left with just two points from two games, and no one at that stage was talking about the final.
Now they are in the final, having demonstrated a potency that surprised Germany, it is probably fair to say they are carrying most neutral support. Tiki-taka is better the way Barcelona play it, with Lionel Messi at the sharp end to keep things happening. The way Spain play it, with Fernando Torres on the bench, is becoming a recipe for uninspiring games and penalty shootouts. Had the two semis been a beauty contest the Italians would have won hands down, and if Balotelli can be anything like as explosive in the final he has a chance of not only finishing top scorer but of stealing Pirlo's limelight as the outstanding player of an outstanding tournament.
How outstanding has Euro 2012 been? It is obviously difficult to quantify these things, but in terms of dull games, meaningless matches, negative tactics and predictable results, pleasingly little of the last three weeks has represented time wasted. Interest in the group stage remained high until the last, and though the quarter-finals went broadly according to form and expectation, the semi-finals definitely did not.
One measure of the overall success of the tournament is that practically every team involved had a good moment, performing something remarkable or managing a memorable contribution. The only whipping boys were Ireland, who in addition to being beaten every time out, had to put up with Roy Keane disparaging the best efforts of their supporters. It did not stop the boys in green having a good time, so it is just about possible to say everyone will look back on Euro 2012 with affection, with the exception of Holland and Russia, who should have done better but became the big name fall-guys. Don't believe me? Here's a quick summary:
Croatia Held Italy and almost held Spain, performances that look even better now finalists are known.
Czech Republic Thrashed on first day, ended up winning their group. The sort of crazy thing that should happen in tournaments, even if they were poor in the quarter-final.
Denmark Did for Holland in Group of Death. Gave it a good go against Portugal too. Even Niklas Bendtner looked in good nick.
England Heady excitement at winning Group D followed by usual quarter-final reality check. Carroll's goal v Sweden among best of the tournament.
Spain Reached final. One win away from undisputed greatness if third title in a row is claimed.
France A work in progress and shouldn't have lost to Sweden, but at least they did not go on strike or turn on the manager.
Germany Team of the tournament until semi-final stunner. Still a young side with plenty of potential, but keep flattering to deceive. Won't say bottlers yet, but four last-four finishes in a row with no cigar tells its own story.
Greece Can one result turn a tournament into a success? Giorgios Karagounis's winner against Russia certainly made a lot of Greeks happy.
Italy Reached final, made Germany look almost as harmless as England in semi. Unleashed Balotelli.
Holland Trauma from first defeat by Denmark to Bert van Marwijk quitting after finishing bottom of Group B with no points. Major surprise, but testament to quality of opposition.
Poland Just one memorable match, against opponents they would have chosen to do well against. Jakub Blaszczykowski's equaliser not only one of goals of tournament but effectively put the brakes on Russia.
Portugal Hot and cold. Worth a place in last four after performances in Group of Death, though over-reliant on Cristiano Ronaldo in the absence of a real centre-forward.
Republic of Ireland Football unmemorable, fans best in show. May not have impressed Keane, but Uefa now say they want Scotland at the party for similar reasons.
Russia Brilliant start with 4-1 defeat of Czech Republic, unbelieveable exit at the hands of Greece. So bad in the end it was shocking.
Sweden Much better than expected against England and France. Pity they underestimated Sheva. Zlatan Ibrahimovic goal against France among best in tournament.
Ukraine Great, great Andriy Shevchenko show in first game. Tailed off somewhat afterwards.
The point of all that is to show that in its present, 16-team format, the European Championship is about as good as it is going to get, at least as good as most World Cups, and does not need tinkering with. The tinkering has been done, however, the battle lost, and in France in 2016 an unwieldy 24 teams will take part.
One doubts if that counts as progress though there is no point going through all the old arguments again. Suffice to say that if Fifa worked on the same principle as Uefa and allowed roughly half of its affiliated nations to compete in the finals, there would be around a hundred teams at the next World Cup in Brazil.
For everyone in Europe except Italy and Spain, that is where attention now turns. England will immediately find themselves facing familiar opponents in Poland, Ukraine and Montenegro in Group H, with visits for old time's sake to Moldova, where David Beckham won his first cap in 1996, and San Marino, scene of Graham Taylor's immortal "Do I not like that" utterance in 1993.
It does not appear a particularly difficult group, though the evidence of the last month is that despite outbreaks of excitement, England are not getting any better at tournaments proper. That Germany, Holland, France and Portugal have also hit a wall does not put them in good company, for each of those four sides have featured in a final within the last decade.
Indeed it is a sobering consideration that all seven of the other co-quarter-finalists at Euro 2012 have reached a final more recently than England, some of them on multiple occasions. England just about lived up to their reputation as a quarter-final team, that is, one of the best eight in Europe, in Poland and Ukraine, even though it is debatable whether they are actually better than Holland, Croatia or Russia. Fifa's current ranking of sixth in the world must be some sort of elaborate joke.