Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 26 July 2014

James Lawton: Unplayable Spain take place among football's greatest

KIEV, UKRAINE - JULY 01: (L-R) Gerard Pique, Pepe Reina, Fernando Llorente and Iker Casillas of Spain celebrate with the trophy following victory in the UEFA EURO 2012 final match between Spain and Italy at the Olympic Stadium on July 1, 2012 in Kiev, Ukraine. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

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, they made a mockery of the suggestion that as the leaders of the world game they had become time-expired.

Here last night they completed their straight hat-trick of two European titles with the World Cup set in the middle that will be remembered not only for the remorseless accomplishments of men like Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez but also the courage of a team who refused to forget who they were – and quite what they represented.



It was not the final that had stimulated so much of the football imagination from more or less the moment Spain won their second straight major title in Johannesburg two years ago. But it did have the man who had 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 unprece-ndented place in the annuls 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 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 greatness, 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Xavi, one of the Italian's few potential superiors in the business of shaping and dominating a match, was withdrawn from the semi-final against Portugal in a state of some weary bemusement. Twenty four hours later Pirlo was systematically shredding all that German hauteur. Mario 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 Löw's decision to pick his team largely with the threat of Pirlo in mind will run for some time. Here last night the sublime wrecker was playing for the highest stakes in modern football.



Apart from looking to add a European Championship winner's 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, and one of them was to declare that they indeed had a claim on 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 semi-final 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 they were so good that they could do without an orthodox striker, and they could throw in the former creator in chief at Arsenal, Cesc Fabregas. It may have smacked of sacrilege when coach Vicente 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 14th-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 Giorgio 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 their place in history with a second goal, from their left-back 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 quite perfectly, producing withering speed, a quick pass to Xavi and then returning on to the return ball to score with a certainty that landed cruelly on Italian spirt.



The Italian dream will just have to be recreated at some point in the future when the Spanish, who knows, may have 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 footall. And they had been duly punished, along with all those who had the nerve to suggest that their reign might just 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 team-mate Juan Mata, confirmed that this was a team in no hurry to stop running, or passing or defining a new game that for the moment at least continues to inhabit terrain all of its own.

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