July 1, 2012
Spanish empire strikes back
By JAMES LAWTON, Special to QMI Agency
KIEV, UKRAINE - A football empire has maybe never before struck back with such brilliant authority to claim a unique place in the history of the game.
Spain not only destroyed the formidable threat of a revived Italy, it made a mockery of the suggestion that as the leaders of the world game its time had expired.
Here Sunday night the Spanish completed their hat trick of two European titles, with the World Cup set in the middle, that will remembered not only for the remorseless accomplishment of men like Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez but also the courage of a team that refused to forget who it was -- and quite what it represented.
It was not the final that had stimulated so much of the football imagination from, more or less, the moment Spain won its second straight major title in Johannesburg two years ago. But it did have the man who made such nonsense of the idea that only Germany, the young, bounding Germany, had a serious chance of denying the reigning World and European champions an unprecedented place in the annals of football.
Andrea Pirlo, at 33, had not only been the star of the show coming into the game, he had also announced in Italy's opening group game against Spain that he was also best equipped to break the dynasty of La Roja.
It was an idea that would not be rejected but simply ravaged soon enough. However, the extent of the Spanish triumph, its depth of facility and character, can maybe be best defined by the scale of the challenge they were supposed to face here last night.
Spain, after all, did not come here trailing the glory that would so quickly be lighting up the Ukrainian sky.
Xavi, one of the Italians' few potential superiors in the business of shaping and dominating a match, was withdrawn from the semifinal against Portugal in a state of weary bemusement. Twenty four hours later, Pirlo was systematically shredding all that German hauteur. Balotelli exploded the bombs. Pirlo designed them and put them in place.
He had also undermined the Spanish defence in that first game, sending half of it the wrong way as deftly as a matador making a pass and playing in Antonio di Natale for the sweetest of strikes.
In Germany, recriminations over coach Joachim Loew's decision to pick his team largely with the threat of Pirlo in mind will be running for some time. Here Sunday night, the sublime wrecker was playing for the highest stakes in modern football.
Apart from looking to add a European championship winners' medal to the World Cup triumph he seized so brilliantly in 2006, he was attempting to expose what some were beginning to see as one of football's great myths. It was the belief that you can continue to be a great side even while your instinct, and the opportunity, to score has progressively declined with each new challenge.
Pirlo, it seemed, was not only attempting to beat Spain but also re-assert some old truths of the game.
The trouble was that La Roja had a few ambitions of their own. One of them was to declare that they indeed had a claim to being one of the greatest, if not the greatest, teams in football history.
They could hardly have done it more bitingly, more exquisitely, than with the two first-half goals that made Pirlo's assignment seem not so much a long shot as an extraordinary impertinence.
First David Silva, then Jordi Alba, ransacked the Italian self-belief that had grown so enormously, so quickly in the devastating semifinal performance against Germany. They were the kind of goals that announced the dawn of the Spanish empire in Vienna in 2008, when they won the European title with football so rhythmic, so uplifting, it might have been Mozart.
One theory coming in here was that the Spanish game, so unanswerable in that first eruption four years ago and preserved in the World Cup by the superb finishing of David Villa, had turned in on itself. It had become passing almost for its own sake, a vanity unsupported by the hard edge of a true finisher with the injury to Villa and the decline of Fernando Torres.
Spain believed it was so good that it could do without an orthodox striker, it could throw in the former creator in chief at Arsenal, Cesc Fabregas. It may have smacked of sacrilege when coach Vincente del Bosque made the announcement but last night the sceptical were thrust into the same kind of retreat imposed on the Azzurri.
Fabregas played beautifully to set up Silva's 15th-minute headed goal after receiving a pass from Iniesta that was just about guaranteed to tear the heart out of any defence. Fabregas quite effortlessly went by Georgio Chiellini, who would soon disappear with a combination of injury and maybe a touch of despair, before turning in the cross for Silva.
Just to underline the point, Spain stepped more closely to its place in history with a second goal, from left back Jordi Alba, close to half time. Alba, though, is only a defender in the most fleeting way. His purpose is to spread devastation along the left flank and here he did it perfectly, producing withering speed, a quick pass to Xavi, who now looked about as bemused as a coiled cobra, and then returning on to the return pass to score with a certainty that landed cruelly on Italian spirit.
The Italian dream will just have to be recreated at some point in the future when the Spanish may just have tired of the demands of their relentless and, on this occasion, quite unplayable football. No doubt the Azzurri will come again but inevitably Pirlo and his assistants were a forlorn sight in the second half, not least when they ran out of substitutes with the injury to Thiago Motta.
They had dared to challenge the masters of modern football. And they had been duly punished, along with all those who had the nerve to suggest that their reign might be over. This wasn't a stay of execution.
This was a new lease on a fabulous football empire, one in which even the so-recently downcast Torres might still hold office. His late goal, along with one from Chelsea teammate Juan Mata, confirmed this was a team in no hurry to stop running, or passing, or defining a game that for the moment at least continues to inhabit terrain all its own.