Despite coming up short in the final, Italy’s Euro 2012 campaign will be remembered fondly for some time to come
After winning the World Cup in 2006, Italy went through a series of disappointing results in practically every important competition they undertook; the one exception was the 2012 European Championship, in which the Azzurri reached the final after a breathtaking campaign.
Coach Cesare Prandelli, who was trying to recreate with Italy the beautifully played football he had displayed in his Fiorentina days, had brought a squad full of muscle and talent, including a promising and young Mario Balotelli, a peaking Antonio Di Natale, the eternal maestro Andrea Pirlo and interesting players as Antonio Cassano and Sebastian Giovinco.
The match against Spain was the debut for the Azzurri in the tournament; as difficult as a debut can be, considering that the Del Bosque squad was reigning champion of both the European and the World Cup. That team was based on the tactical revolution of Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, improved with the strength of some of Real Madrid’s best men.
The underdog situation notwithstanding, Prandelli decided to deploy his XI in the most classical Italian way; trying to defend, recover the ball and then run quickly on the offensive. The line-up for that game consisted of the veteran Gianluigi Buffon, defended by an uncovered three-men defensive line composed by Daniele De Rossi, Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci.
The midfield featured the Brazilian-born Thiago Motta, along with Pirlo and Claudio Marchisio; the wingers were Christian Maggio and Emanuele Giaccherini, while the attacking duo sported the two most unpredictable among Italy’s talents: Balotelli and Cassano.
Considering the high number of midfielders deployed by both, the match developed quickly into a battle of attacks and counter-attacks, with great goal occasions on both sides; mostly remarkable, the quick catch-and-shoot by Andres Iniesta, after a fabulous control in the middle of Italy’s box, and a header by Thiago Motta miraculously saved by Iker Casillas.
In the second half, a clamorous error by Sergio Ramos gave Balotelli a clear look at Casillas’ goal, but the Azzurri forward was incredibly too slow in bringing the ball towards the penalty area, and Spain’s defence could recover and save the day.
A few minutes later, Pirlo engaged himself in a stunning series of dribbles in the midfield, and then served a wonderful assist for new-entered Di Natale, who could release a highly accurate right-footer into the net. Italy were winning 1-0 against the champions of everything.
Spain reacted almost immediately with their best man, Iniesta, but the real game-changer was Cesc Fabregas, acting as falso nueve (fake striker) who capitalised on a diagonal pass by David Silva and equalised the match.
The final part of the game became frantic, with clear occasions for both sides: Fernando Torres’ run was stopped by a wonderful save by Buffon, while Di Natale missed the double on the opposite side of the pitch after Giovinco’s cross.
The match ended 1-1, and Italy’s self-confidence boosted after the draw against the reigning champions. With that game, the great run to the final begun, only to be frustrated by a disastrous 4-0 defeat against the same Spanish squad.