Sunday, July 1, 2012

Spain vs Italy @ 20:45


Every two or four years there is one player who generally eclipses all others in lighting up proceedings and performing with such grace that a particular finals are considered 'their tournament'.

Four years ago in Austria and Switzerland it was Xavi Hernández who was feted for his metronomic range of passing as Spain ended over four decades of disappointment. Now similar acclaim could be heading Andrea Pirlo's way if Italy defeat the holders in the UEFA EURO 2012 final.

Coming off the back of a stellar season with Juventus – in which he appeared in all but one game during the Bianconeri's unbeaten, Scudetto-winning campaign – Pirlo has been the Azzurri's orchestrator-in-chief in Poland and Ukraine. A classic 'regista', he has directed play from his deep-lying position behind Italy's narrow midfield three.

A sumptuous free-kick against Croatia, a couple of assists and three Carlsberg Man of the Match awards – more than any other player – mean he will be the man his team-mates and coach Cesare Prandelli look to on Sunday night.

"Our central midfield has a lot of quality in it; we can run and press the ball a lot there and we have a great player who can raise the level, Andrea Pirlo," said Prandelli at the pre-final press conference. "Often the other players just work to get the ball to him, to give him space so he can dictate things."
He did just that in the quarter-final against England a week ago, completing a EURO record 117 passes, albeit with the aid of extra time. And who can forget that Panenka-style spot-kick in the pressure situation of the penalty shoot-out?

His head-to-head with Xavi at Kyiv's Olympic Stadium is certainly one for the purists. The FC Barcelona playmaker is part of what Sir Alex Ferguson famously called the Blaugrana's "passing carousel" – and with good reason. With club-mate Sergio Busquets alongside him, Xavi has executed more passes in the tournament than anybody else, his total of 455 being 101 more than Pirlo.

Both players have won the FIFA World Cup, but for Xavi history beckons, with no player having appeared in two victorious EURO finals. "We have achieved great things," said Xavi, at 32 eight months Pirlo's junior. "We are very lucky to have a great generation of footballers.

"We want to continue creating history and we have another chance. We want to enjoy it and we are lucky because it's our second [EURO] final. We want to show everybody that this side is still hungry for success and that our football is good."

For Xavi, Spain's cycle of success started when Vicente del Bosque's predecessor took the reins. "Luis [Aragonés] was the turning point," said Xavi after UEFA EURO 2008. "He took a gamble on the little guys. That started with him; putting players like [Andrés] Iniesta, [Santi] Cazorla, Cesc Fàbregas, [David] Silva and [David] Villa in the team."

It was theme to which he returned in the press conference. "I feel lucky because several years ago football had a tendency to be more physical," explained Xavi. "We want to produce spectacular games. Footballers like Pirlo and players of Spanish and Italian teams play a similar style, so I'm very happy, happy that the tendency is to really play and attack more." Few would argue with that.

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