Sunday, June 29, 2008

Boots of Spanish Leather

After every pundit reminded us that form in the group stages doesn't matter, that getting outplayed by shorthanded Turkey for long stretches doesn't matter, that Germany win these sorts of tournaments and Spain do not, and that German size the strength would prevail over the smaller Spaniards, Spain won the European title with a 1-0 win that flattered their opponents. In the end, talent won. The ability to control, dribble, and pass won. The better team won.

In my heart of hearts, I thought before the game that Spain had the better team, but that Germany would play their best and sneak out a win. I bought into the "Spain never win anything" line of thinking (thanks, Dad and Klinsi), forgetting that the last two Super Bowls were won by Manning brothers and two of the last four World Series were won by the Red Sox. It dawned on me during the national anthems that the Germans were the side full of second-place specialists. The Germans had Jens Lehmann in net, the same Mad Jens who got red carded minutes into his only Champions League Final. The Germans had Miroslav Klose up front, a striker most noted for pouring in the goals against Saudi Arabia and then fading at crunch time. The Germans had Michael Ballack, a famous "almost" player (although that reputation is not entirely his fault). The last time that Ballack and Iker Casillas were on the same pitch for a major final, Casillas played out of his mind in the later stages to preserve a Champions League title for Real Madrid against Bayer Leverkusen. Spain's defense was marshaled by Carles Puyol, who captained a Champions League winner himself. Their attack was led by Fernando Torres, who scored big goal after big goal for Liverpool in the Champions League this year. The reputations coming into the game were Spain as bottlers and Germany as clutch, but the individual players were the reverse.

No, I will not let you borrow my Champions League medal.

And so it played out. After Puyol covered for Sergio Ramos's only goof of the match in the fourth minute and Hitzlsperger hit the ball right at Casillas in the ninth minute, Spain dominated the rest of the way. They had just about every good chance. The back line handled Germany's forwards easily (Sergio Ramos deserves special credit for his work negating Lukas Podolski), Marco Senna won everything in the midfield, Xavi was a perfect fulcrum, and the front men consistently made intelligent runs. Iniesta was a constant danger man despite playing out of position (his ball across the box for David Silva that Silva then skied over was particularly sublime) and Torres, well, he was Torres.

Torres's goal demonstrated the best about his game, as well as Xavi's. Xavi is the master of control and accurate passing. He popped up in the middle, took the ball, and immediately put it into Torres's path. Torres then used his speed and strength to overpower Phillip Lahm for the ball in the box (naturally, the bigger Germans gave up the goal because of their one diminutive player) and push a perfect shot over Lehmann and into the net. Lehmann was always a worry for the Germans and it must be said that he didn't need to come charging out of his net on this occasion. He's now lost a Champions League Final and a Euro final by being too aggressive. As for Torres, his goal was the second occasion when he had been more physical than the German defenders, with the first being his awesome effort to head the ball onto the base of the post when Mertesacker was right on him.

As for the Germans, their physical prowess didn't pay dividends for two main reasons. First, they wasted a number of opportunities with poor deliveries from free kicks. Bastian Schweinsteiger's evil twin had a poor game. Second, Iker Casillas controlled his area perfectly.

Random thoughts:

1. How amusing that Spain finally win the big one after they banish Raul. I'm lovin' that.

2. I was really disappointed by Michael Ballack. He had a few good moment, but for a guy who I've always liked and viewed as a big game player, he had a poor match. He made a number of late tackles as Andy Gray astutely noted and he didn't have the sort of impact on the game that we thought. He seemed to be frustrated and pressing. Senna and Xavi won their battle with Ballack decisively, which goes a long way to explaining why Spain dominated the proceedings. Then again, if not for a deflection from Sergio Ramos or a shot into the side netting, we might be writing much nicer things about Ballack. The difference between "he's clutch" and "he choked" is ludicrously small.

2a. I don't know if it's quite fair to blame Ballack. After all, he was a little better than Cesc Fabregas, his equivalent on the Spanish side. To me, the match was decided by the Spanish getting more from Xavi and Senna than the Germans did from Hitzlsperger and Frings. Spain won in the midfield and then Iniesta and Torres had more success against the weaker German back line than Klose, Podolski, and Schweini did against a superior Spanish back line. The Spanish attackers got more of the ball because of their midfield and they were more likely to turn possession into chances.

3. It's odd that Spain broke their international hoodoo after a year in which just about every Spanish analyst proclaimed La Liga to be a disappointment.

4. I'm sure they will have noticed in Spain that the last challenge of the match was won by Barcelona's captain and then the last kick of the match was made by Real Madrid's captain.

5. It's hard to put into words what a breath of fresh air Euro '08 was. Euro '04 was won by the Greeks boring a series of superior opponents into submission and winning matches 1-0 when they converted their only chance of each game. The 2006 World Cup came down to a final between France and Italy, a ringing endorsement for conservative football. Euro '08, in contrast, was won by a team of real skill and class. For the most part, Spain came up against opponents who came to play proper football themselves, thus allowing the Spanish the space to show off their merits. The one exception, predictably, was Italy. The few anti-football sides at this tournament were shown the door early, which led to some really good knock-out games. The one effective way to deal with the Spanish short-passing style (when played by quality players) is the "park the bus" approach that Sir Alex Ferguson took at the Nou Camp. Thankfully, only Italy took this approach this year. The tournament was thus won by the best team.


nigel said...

How can you call them the best team when they're not England?

Three Lions. Full stop.

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