Extending their incredible record of not conceding a goal in knockout football since the 2006 World Cup – a run that now stands at almost 1000 minutes – Spain added to their triumphs at Euro 2008 and the 2010 World Cup with their crowning achievement: a comprehensive victory secured by three wonderfully-constructed goals that were true to the team’s trademark style, and a late fourth to ensure the biggest margin of victory ever seen in a final at this tournament.
This was a night when Spain’s dominance of international football became more absolute than any team’s before them. The much-discussed philosophy of ultra-control, tiki-taka, allowed them to suppress yet another opponent; their intricate and wonderful passing overwhelming an Italian midfield that prior to Sunday night had excelled at Euro 2012, but for the last 30 minutes of this game in Kiev was depleted by an injury to Thiago Motta after all three Italian changes had been made.
Having attracted criticism for rather uninspiring victories over France and Portugal in the knockout stages, this was Spain’s riposte: goals from David Silva after 14 minutes and Jordi Alba after 41 minutes were as technically excellent as any seen at the tournament and were vivid vindications of Spain’s approach. The closing stages were a procession, Xavi teeing up substitute Fernando Torres with another fine pass for his second assist of the night and Torres then turning provider to square for Chelsea team-mate Juan Mata, who had only been on the pitch for two minutes in his first appearance of the finals.
The pass ensured Torres won the Golden Boot having finished level on goals and assists with Germany’s Mario Gomez but having been on the pitch for only 189 minutes in total. The striker’s goal in Kiev meant he was the only player to have scored in two separate European Championship finals.
On a night when records fell as regularly as Spain strung together gorgeous passing moves, Iker Casillas became the first player to win 100 international games and Vicente del Bosque became the first coach to win the European Championship, the World Cup and the Champions League. For an Italy side that has been resurgent under the laudable leadership of Cesare Prandelli, though, it was a step too far, a first defeat in competitive internationals against Spain since 1920.
They did lose a penalty shoot-out to Spain in the quarter-finals of Euro 2008 though – a result that has been pinpointed by Spain’s players as the moment when belief in their nascent ability finally crystallised and a long history of international disappointment began to quickly evolve into a legacy of sustained success, so it was a neat coincidence that the Azzurri again provided the opposition as Spain reached previously unscaled heights.
Spain’s only change from the semi-final shoot-out win over Portugal was entirely expected, Cesc Fabregas replacing Alvaro Negredo in attack to perform the false nine role that has given such ammunition to Spain’s growing number of critics. Designed to help enhance those possession statistics and keep the ball away from Andrea Pirlo, it was ostensibly a cautious strategy from Del Bosque.
Italy made a change of their own, the returning Ignazio Abate slotting in at right-back as Federico Balzaretti was dropped, Giorgio Chiellini being a more defensive option at left-back with Prandelli also unwilling to break up the central partnership of Andrea Barzagli and Leonardo Bonucci. There was no return to the 3-5-2 formation that Italy deployed in their opening group game when drawing 1-1 with Spain in Gdansk.
However, Chiellini was exposed for the opening goal after 14 minutes as Spain were rewarded for an enterprising start that belied accusations that their brand of football has become unalterably boring. While Italy looked to target the rump of the Spain side with balls over the top to Mario Balotelli, Del Bosque’s side once again demonstrated that their strength lies in their torso as Xavi and Andres Iniesta took control through the centre.
Xavi, who conceded prior to the game that he has not been at his peak level during the tournament, looked to have taken personal affront to negative critiques of himself and his side and unusually let fly with a couple of shots from range. The second flew narrowly over following a neat one-two with Fabregas.
It was a fluid start from Spain and they capitalised inside 15 minutes with a goal of utter brilliance. Iniesta took possession of the ball 25 yards from goal and opened up the Italy defence with a perfect through-ball for Fabregas. The false nine hit the byline and pulled a fine cross back for Silva, who timed his run excellently and from eight yards out directed his header inside the far post.
If Spain were determined to prove a point, it had been driven home forcefully. Yet Italy’s response to going behind for the first time in the tournament was not to cower, but to try and wrest control back. Daniele De Rossi was instrumental with a forceful 20 minutes and, having seen Chiellini taken off with an injury, replacement Federico Balzaretti also provided real impetus down the left.
De Rossi robbed Xavi of possession on one occasion and pinged a pass out to Antonio Cassano. The forward made a smart turn before rolling in a low shot that Casillas saved, and later took the ball from Pirlo before seeing another effort beaten away by the Spain captain. Remarkably Italy had the better of possession in the first half, but they could not find an equaliser.
Four minutes before half time Spain extended their advantage. Alba played the ball square to Xavi and accelerated through the centre of the pitch with a brilliant run to receive the return pass. His first touch to control was exquisite, his second surgical as he placed his shot past Buffon. It was just reward for a player, destined to join Barcelona, who has been consistently excellent throughout the tournament.