In Germany, the recent mood was as if the national team was already European champions. The disappointment was all the greater then after the fully deserved 2-1 defeat to old rivals and bogey team Italy, who Germany have never beaten in a competitive game. After finishing runners-up in 2008 and
reaching the semi-finals at the World Cup in 2010 everybody in Germany wanted this title, and they tried not to worry too much about the statistics after what had been impressive, even briliant, displays at times. However, you can only beat Italy when you create pressure by playing a fast-paced game. Germany failed to do that in the first half against the Azzurri.
Italy have surprised us once again, especially when considering that their preparations for Euro 2012 were overshadowed by an investigation into match-fixing, complete with suspensions and arrests.
But in the very first game Italy made you sit up and take notice. They drew 1-1 in group C with Spain in what many people thought was the best of all the group matches.
All respect then to the Italians. Reaching the final could not have been predicted in view of their troubled times before the tournament.
Coach Cesare Prandelli also earns respect for putting his faith in difficult-to-manage 21-year-old striker Mario Balotelli from England's champions Manchester City. Balotelli repaid the trust with two superb goals against Germany in the semi-final victory on Thursday - one a header, the other a shot so fierce it was hard to pick it up with the human eye. Balotelli is an exceptional talent and exceptional talents can polarize.
Now Spain and Italy will be meeting again in the final, I believe that despite Italy's strengths, Spain will defend their title. The Italians will have to cover a lot of ground against them.
It's incredible how Andrea Pirlo has developed into the player now running the game, helped by midfielders including Riccardo Montolivo. And Italy has in Gianluigi Buffon a goalkeeper who, unlike other goalies who fly through the air, takes a couple of steps and coolly brings a shot down.
He is absolutely world class. With Spain, the brains of the team appear to be weakening. I mean, of course Xavi and Andres Iniesta, the two Barcelona midfielders. Coach Vicente Del Bosque took them both off in the last matches to give them a at least a bit of a rest. But I am sure everyone will be able to go to the limit for Sunday's final in Kiev.
I don't like the 4-6-0 system Del Bosque has played. Spain it seems has no finisher, no one to score the decisive goals. And they need an incredible number of chances to score a goal. But Spain have found refuge in their short-passing game of possession. No one can stop them, although Croatia came close by man-marking Xavi.
Portugal were also a match for an hour, then the Spanish way of playing got the better of them, even if it needed a penalty shoot-out to decide the semi-final. Spain can rely on a watertight defence as well plus their top keeper Iker Casillas. Buffon and Casillas should now be vying for the world keeper of the year award for a fifth time.
As I said, I make Spain the favourites. But if Italy manage to play as well as they did in the 1-1 draw in their group-stage encounter then they also have a very good chance of becoming European champions.
The author is Germany's world cup & euro winning captain.
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