In their clash in the group stages, Spain and Italy started 11 central midfielders. That area will again define how the final goes.Soccer games are won in the midfield. This long-held belief is seldom challenged. Certainly, this European Championship has done nothing to do chip away at that universal tenet. In fact, its most successful participants appear to have sought to drive the point home a little further still.
Spain, the title-holder, and Italy, the unexpected challenger, will meet in Sunday’s final. And if the former is the world’s footballing darling (although that sentiment seems to be shifting to asinine accusations of being boring in its innate dominance) and the latter is an unfancied, re-built side newly plunged into yet another bribery scandal, they have a great deal in common too. Geopolitically, there is the wretched recession; a past lived under the yolk of a strong man; and hundreds of miles of glorious Mediterranean shoreline. They boast the world’s two best goalkeepers – Iker Casillas and Gigi Buffon, respectively. They lean, more than it would appear, on a super sound defense. They have no real classical strikers in the usual lineup – for Cesc Fabregas is a "false 9" and neither Antonio Cassano or Mario Balotelli have conventional takes on their jobs, one forever drifting wide and the other reinventing the position as he goes. And, crucially, both teams deploy as many central midfielders as they can possibly squeeze into their lineups.
In Spain’s case, this is understandable. It has a higher concentration of central midfield talent than any other team in the sport’s history. So it’s hard to blame it for playing to its strength. In all five of Spain’s games thus far, it has fielded Xabi Alonso, Sergio Busquests and Xavi in a central triangle while Andres Iniesta and David Silva have played out wide, away from their natural roles. In two games, Spain started Fabregas as well. Vicente Del Bosque brought him on in the second half of the other three, effectively boosting the central midfielder tally to six. La Roja's is now famously a 4-6-0 formation when Fabregas is on the field.
Italy’s reliance on the middies is more tactical flourish by manager Cesare Prandelli than obvious solution to an abundance of manpower there. In Italy’s two opening games – the first of them a 1-1 draw against Spain, incidentally – he fielded three central midfielders: Andrea Pirlo, Thiago Motta and Claudio Marchisio, ahead of another, Daniele De Rossi, who was moved back a line to take the central role in the defense of a previously untested 3-5-2. This helped Italy crowd out Spain’s awesome strength in the middle of the park. So it stuck to that formation against Croatia and then it reverted to a 4-4-2 with a very narrow diamond in subsequent games, shifting De Rossi into the midfield and later sacrificing Motta for the more forward-thinking Ricardo Montolivo. By allowing all four midfielders to play centrally, Italy has consolidated all of its power into a central force, making for a battering ram that allowed it to dominate the much-lauded German midfield in Thursday’s 2-1 semifinal win.
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Spain’s midfield may be the more famous one, but it isn’t as versatile as that of Italy. Spain’s dribbling dervishes are all more or less the same in their approach – and therein lies their strength: the number of ball magicians – save for the more Anglicized Alonso. But Italy’s midfield is diverse and complimentary. Pirlo remains the world’s best distributor of the ball, over ranges long and short. Montolivo is a creative attacking midfielder. Motta or Marchisio can win and mind the ball. And De Rossi's long shot is peerless.
Heading into Sunday’s final, then, all other lines will be relegated to afterthoughts as Prandelli and his counterpart, Del Bosque, figure out how to settle the arms race of central midfielders in their favor. Italy’s superior strikers will balance out Spain’s experience, making it that all else – the goalkeepers and the defense – really will be equal. Spain will be motivated by a chance to win a first Euro-World Cup-Euro treble. Italy is again under siege from a bribery scandal and will seek the same kind of redemption winning World Cup 2006 offered.
If ever a game was going to be decided in midfield, it is this one.