KIEV, UKRAINE - JUNE 30: Daniele De Rossi of Italy looks on during a training session at Olympic Stadium on June 30, 2012 in Kiev, Ukraine. (Photo by Claudio Villa/Getty Images)
Transition...that was supposed to be the story of Italy at the 2012 UEFA European Football Championship. Italy, seen as too far removed from its recent glory days and not quite ready to hand the reins to its youth, was supposed to struggle in this tournament, a brief appearance outside of the group stage was the best case scenario. Despite how effortlessly they sailed through qualification, they were no match for the mighty Germans, the hyped English, or the clever Spanish, Andrea Pirlo was past his prime and Mario Balotelli more trouble than trustworthy.
My, how things can change in a mere three weeks.
The first meeting between Spain and Italy on June 10th was more about necessity than ingenuity. Italy, forced to cover for the absence of Andrea Barzagli and Domenico Criscito, pressed Daniele De Rossi into service as a defender in Cesare Prandelli's 3-5-2 formation, a gamble somewhat mitigated by De Rossi's malleable talents.
Spain, also facing their own tactical uncertainties, ran out a 4-6-0, using Cesc Fabregas as a false nine. However, unlike Italy, their hand was forced by Vicente Del Bosque's presumed lack of faith in Fernando Torres, given his recent club-side struggles, rather than injuries or possible felonies, as was the case with Italy. Similarly, his insistence that Spain dominate possession left Fernando Llorente firmly planted on the bench, as his aerial skills would require crosses and more vertical passing, thus limiting Spanish possession time.
Ironically, De Rossi and Torres, both at the center of the somewhat drastic changes, would play a pivotal role in the outcome of this match. De Rossi, for the most part competent in defense, showed his true midfield colors once Torres entered the match, as his deeper runs seemed to expose De Rossi for what he was, a midfielder in defender's clothing. The exposition was mere theater in the end, as Torres failed to convert on his scoring chances.
Ultimately, neither player registered in the scoring ledger, as Antonio Di Natale and Cesc Fabregas steered the match towards its 1-1 conclusion.
In the ensuing three weeks, Spain has used both the false nine 4-6-0 and a more traditional, striker-oriented formation, using Torres and Alvaro Negredo to find its way to the final, defeating France and Portugal in the knockout stages.
Meanwhile, Italy, having recovered Barzagli, shifted to a 4-3-1-2 and the results have been stellar. Rather than just guiding a transition to the future, De Rossi and Pirlo have shined in their respective roles the past four matches, as Italy drew Croatia, dispatched Ireland, outlasted England and upset Germany, with Pirlo pulling the strings in the finest of fashion and even Bending it Like....er, Pitching it like Pirlo(?) and De Rossi reading, covering and tackling with aplomb and generally acting like a boss, as the kids say.
As fantastic as those two holdovers from 2006 have been, Italy would have been hard pressed to reach the finals without Mario Balotelli, who has been at his enigmatic best: scoring goals, shouting at coaches, and stripping....Italy's very own Magic Mike, if you will.
There isn't much you can say about Super Mario that hasn't been said already, he's equally comfortable ripping the hearts out of German football fans as he is creating in-home fireworks displays (a sound second career, if ever there was one). Despite the fact that he scored 19 goals and won a Premiership title with Manchester City this season, many will point to Euro 2012 as his true coming out party. Quite frankly, with the quality of his two goals against Germany in the semifinals, surely a big stage if there ever was one, it's hard to argue otherwise. His emergence in this tournament is what really sets this current squad apart from the 2010 group. In the absence of Giuseppe Rossi, someone needed to provide a threat up front, which Balotelli has done in spades. In fact, it's been quite some time since Gli Azzurri have had such a potent threat up top, no disrespect to Luca Toni, no one can match the impact he had on the collective libido's of Italian women the world over.
Also worth mentioning is the always stellar Gianluigi Buffon. At this point it's hard to tell what he enjoys more, parrying away shots or belting out Il Canto degli Italiani, which is, incidentally, my favorite part of every pre-game. It's a beautiful song, one of the world's best anthems by far, and to see him sing it with such passion really shows that he appreciates the honor and privilege of representing one's country at such a high level and on such a grand stage. Similarly, as I mentioned at the tournament's outset, it really has been a joy to cheer for GiGi and Pirlo without any anti-Juventus animosity; they are legendary players and seeing Buffon effortlessly turn away attacks and Pirlo calmly steer the midfield makes one proud to have even an ounce of Italian blood.
Beyond that, Antonio Cassano's performance is an agonizing one to watch as a Roma fan, for no other reason than we're left wonder what might have been. Even though he's only scored once, he has been a menace to the opposition, splitting defenders time and again, launching accurate shots from deep and superbly setting up Balotelli's first goal against Germany. It makes one wonder what he could have done with Totti during their respective primes...così è la vita, I suppose.
Tips of the hat also go to Chiellini, Federico Balzaretti, Barzalgi, Di Natale, and Riccardo Montolivo, to name a few.
Italy is up against history tonite, as Spain is looking to not only retain their European Championship (unprecedented in and of itself), but to cement themselves in the pantheon of football, winning three major tournaments in a row: Euro 2008, World Cup 2010, and Euro 2012. Italy will have to contend with the tiki-taka, possess-at-all costs approach of La Roja while keeping their frustrations at bay, lest they be picked apart by Andres Iniesta or Xabi Alonso.
The transition phase for Italy, if it ever existed, has been managed exceedingly well. Italy have proven to be a dangerous side, simultaneously capable of traditional Italian catenaccio and a ceaseless midfield attack, run deftly by the Metronome himself, linking up with the dynamic and dangerous duo of Cassano and Balotelli to leave opponents wanting.
Spain may very well be in the midst of an unprecedented deluge of footballing talent, destined to rewrite the annals of the sport, but history is often torn asunder by fortuitous timing and, as fate would have it, Italy is peaking at the precise moment.