Why Always Me, he had asked once. Months later now, as Italy and Spain gear up for the UEFA Euro 2012 final, Mario Balotelli is one man who can underline the difference between the two teams, should he rise to his potential.
There were suggestions of Italy finding it extremely difficult to even get past a group consisting of the likes of Croatia and Ireland and one must admit it was not an easy job by any means. The speculations over Italy’s horrendous showing at the Euro 2012 reminiscent of their performance in South Africa a couple of years back did carry some merit as the team was nearly in shambles considering the unfortunate events transpired. Their preparation too took a great hit on the back of yet another scandal as it was pretty evident in their abysmal display in the last friendly fixture against Russia.
Italy however, are known to grind out their best when odds turn visibly against them but despite their history of rising against the tide, not even the most optimistic of fans would have been hopeful of what the team has managed so far. After just edging Croatia in the group stages to qualify as the runner up, Italy have taken the world by storm with Andrea Pirlo rolling back the years. The Italian maestro has truly turned the clock backwards and his exquisite midfield dominance over the course of the tournament now sees Italy within touching distance to the ultimate piece of European glory.
There is no argument over Pirlo’s influence on the proceedings. His absolutely apparent superiority to any other midfielder in the competition has been the difference between Italy and the others. Even against the mighty Germans, Pirlo was at relative ease in unleashing his magic after completely overshadowing the virtually non-existent England midfield. However, Spain are a team that take the concept of tactical football to a whole new level and their intricate passing game is not something Italians will find easy to deal with.
Though Italy fared reasonably well in the opening group fixture which was perhaps the best performance by a team against Spain in the competition, the finals will be a different game and there’s a good chance Pirlo will not see as much of the ball as he has in the two previous games. The man therefore that could potentially draw the line of difference between the two teams, come Sunday, is none other than arguably Europe’s most interesting character who has, in the last few days, let his flamboyance on the pitch do the talking – Mario Balotelli. The Manchester City forward can most definitely prove to be the trump card against Spain for Cesare Prandelli.
Spain do not let opponents see the ball
Italy have always managed an upper hand in the middle of the park during every single game primarily because of the quality of their central midfielders. The roles for the central midfielders are clearly defined. While Pirlo pulls the strings, Marchisio does the maximum running and has his orders clear to relieve Pirlo off any genuine defensive duties off the ball.
Daniele De Rossi sits deep and adds numbers to the defensive line. The Roma icon-in-making seldom advances in the opposition half. However, Italy have managed to stick with this basic plan so rigidly for they have not been pressed enough by teams. Pirlo has been offered as much time and space on the ball by teams who chose to sit deep as he’d have personally wished to unravel his brilliance.
The dynamics changed slightly against the Germans when Pirlo & co were not allowed the comfort in their own half unlike in the game against England. However, Germany could not cause potential troubles to their Italian counterparts as their center midfield could not match the might of Pirlo, De Rossi and even Montolivo who at times dropped deep enough to give the midfield a conservative four-man look.
The problem against Spain will be their midfield six moves together and shuffles positions too swiftly to track them. Together they drop deep, together they advance up front. The moment the ball is at Pirlo’s feet, they are bound to press him – something Pirlo has been ever so susceptible against. Moreover, since Spain do not play with a striker, there is no point of clear reference for the Italian defence to man-mark and with two Italian full backs intending to make forward runs from the flanks, the central defence might be caught off guard in the immaculate passing that Spain demonstrate in the final third.
With Spain pressing Italy in their own half, very naturally the Italian midfield will find much less time on the ball and they may not be too comfortable executing the usual build-up from the deep. Therefore, to counter this pressing tactics that Spain will employ, Italy have to rely on Pirlo’s long balls and more importantly on the man who will be at the receiving end of them.
Mario Balotelli is perhaps the only classic finisher of the two teams
One of the drawbacks of the no-striker system that Spain have preferred to play in this tournament is there is no poacher at the end point of their passing system and much presumably, the conversion rate for them is alarmingly low. Italy on the other hand, seem to have finally found their target man finding his groove and his two goals against the Germans make the case in point. Balotelli is one of the most physical forwards in the world today and while he may not be converting at the rate of a Gomez or an Ibrahimovic, out-muscling the defenders, he surely can do with ease.
He was fairly comfortable against Hummels and Badstuber in the semi-finals and he has all the reasons to feel confident against the defensive pairing of Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique. Balotelli’s finishing during the group games and the quarter finals raised some concerns and given his temperamental conduct on the pitch, there’s no certainty whether he will deliver in the finals but things swing considerably in Italy’s favour with his presence on the pitch, purely on the grounds of what he is capable of doing.
Spain are certain to enjoy the lion’s share of possession but that should not be the bone of contention for Italy. Prandelli and his troops will have to deal with the fact that you cannot take the ball away from the Spanish. What matters more is despite all the possession and time with the ball, they are bound to struggle in finding the back of the net in absence of a finisher. Italy therefore, need one moment of a classic counter where Pirlo’s vision finds Balotelli in the perfect position to create troubles for Spain. Moments, Italy will definitely find but it is anyone’s guess whether Balotelli will make them count.
Del Bosque might trap Balotelli offside
Though England chose to sit pretty deep by and large in their game against Italy, they did tend to push forward at times. However, Balotelli was never caught offside by the English defence in the entire game. In fact, every single time they tended to hold even a slightly high line, Pirlo easily landed balls in the space behind them only for Balotelli to ruin the potential scoring chances. The German defence too failed to build any offside trap for the former Inter forward and this is where Vicente Del Bosque is expected to have done his home-work.
Jordi Alba does tend to venture forward often and is a key component to exploit the space on the left that Iniesta creates by dragging the opposition full-back narrow. However, Arbeola may be seen curbing his attacking instincts and rather helping the central defence maintain a line deep enough that leaves no space behind them where Pirlo can land his long balls.
In case Spain’s central defence does choose to hold a high line, Balotelli will have to be extremely alert with his positioning as opportunities will come few and far between and they may turn out to be costly if wasted by being caught offside. Antonio Cassano will do his bit to stretch the defence out wide as much as he can and create openings for Balotelli in the middle. How opportune Balotelli turns out to be on the night may make all the difference.
A chance to earn the legendary status
All said and done, Prandelli’s boys have already done enough to do their countrymen proud amidst the turbulent circumstances back home. Balotelli has so far had a career similar to that of a rockstar who has earned plaudits and criticism in equal measure. He is almost a cult figure among his followers but a performance on the biggest stage on Europe that is befitting to his billing is certain to imprint his name on the most glorified pages of the European football history.
This is his chance to write his own destiny. Should he lead his team to the glory edging past the team that has been the best in the continent for the last four years, he will only add to the hero that he already is. Should he fail to, makes him no villain though.