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Jul 12, 2012, 08.23 AM IST
Italy will head into Sunday's European Championship final with one significant advantage over a Spain side that have dominated world football for the last four years. They can score goals.
While Spain have tried to pass their opponents to death at Euro 2012, Italy have stuck to what's almost a quaintly old-fashioned approach of making the net bulge with pinpoint headers and blistering shots. Mario Balotelli's two goals against Germany in Thursday's semi-finals were superb examples of both.
"We had the determination to go and attack Germany right from the off," Italy coach Cesare Prandelli said. "We had the courage to play the ball in midfield. I have always been an advocate of this style of play because I am convinced that we have a lot of quality players."
By contrast, Spain have found it increasingly difficult to score in open play as the tournament has progressed.
Their penalty shootout victory over Portugal in the semi-finals after a 0-0 draw was far from the most entertaining match of the championship to date. Their 2-0 victory over France in the quarter-finals included a penalty and their 1-0 win over Croatia in Spain's final group match needed an 88th minute winner from Jesus Navas.
That's just two goals from open play in 300 minutes of football.
Spain coach Vicente del Bosque is well aware of his team's predicament, due in part to opponents' tendency to sit back and defend.
"There are two parts to football, the offensive and defensive aspects, and we're sharper on the defensive end," he said.
By contrast, Italy have respected a national tradition stretching back decades of getting better as a tournament continues. Their best game by far was the Azzurri's 2-1 victory over hot-favorites Germany in Warsaw and the margin of victory should really have been greater.
Balotelli burst into form and midfielder Andrea Pirlo continued to reproduce the outstanding form that helped Italy win the 2006 World Cup. Claudio Marchisio meanwhile missed two glaring opportunities from inside the penalty box, either of which could have settled Italian nerves well before the final whistle.
And that's the key difference between Spain's victory over Portugal and Italy's shootout win over England after a 0-0 draw in the quarter-finals.
The world and European champions never really looked like scoring against the well-drilled Portuguese, while it was a minor miracle that Italy failed to find the net against Roy Hodgson's side.
The Italians had shown their attacking intent in the third minute of that match with a swerving half-volley by Daniele De Rossi that rattled Joe Hart's post from 30 meters.
A succession of chances then fell to Balotelli, while Riccardo Montolivo sent a shot over the top with the England goal at his mercy, Antonio Nocerino had a goal ruled out for offside, and Alessandro Diamanti hit the bar.
For Spain, it was more of the grindingly familiar game that has taken them to the verge of a third consecutive major title. And it wasn't pretty.
Spain's short passing game draws heavily on the style of football played at club level by Barcelona, whose players are the heart of the national team's midfield in Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta and Cesc Fabregas.
In turn, Barcelona's footballing culture is rooted in the philosophy of their former playing great and manager Johan Cruyff, who is widely quoted as having said: "If you play on possession, you don't have to defend, because there's only one ball."
While there's no arguing with the Dutchman's arithmetic, Spain's current problem is that their possession is not producing anything else except more possession. Like a cat or dog chasing its tail, Spain often appear to be turning the ball round and round in circles, without getting anywhere.
At Barcelona, there is the goalscoring phenomenon, Lionel Messi.
Spain have Fernando Torres. Not a goalscoring phenomenon.
More worrying for Spain is that Italy scored first when these two sides met for their opening game in the group stage on June 10. That time, Fabregas was able to produce a quick equalizer.
Spain may not be so lucky a second time.
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