Man of the Match: Even without his two assists, Xavi Hernández would have been the game’s best player, providing his typical, metronomic, tempo-setting performance. He was the impetus behind a team that showed an uncommon assertiveness from the opening whistle, staking an early claim to their third European title. The two assists were mere symptoms of the constant probing and stretching he used to unlock Italy’s defense.
From the get go it was clear: This wasn’t the same Spain team we’d seen through most of the championship. Perhaps it was the occasion. Perhaps it was the knowledge they’d gained in their first 90 minutes against Italy. Perhaps it was Italy’s tactics. Regardless, Spain was much more energetic and direct than they’d been throughout the tournament.
Two symptoms of that assertiveness:
Spain was taking an uncommonly high number of shots from 20-24 yards. Xavi and Andres Iniesta each had multiple cracks from distance, and while most of them were blocked before reaching Gigi Buffon, the tried hinted at a markedly more aggressive approach – one that was willing to give the ball back to Italy.That same view was evident in the team’s willingness to try low-percentage through balls. Again it was Iniesta and Xavi, and again the strategy had limited early success. But these were noticeably more direct choices that Spain had made throughout the tournament.
It didn’t take long for Spain to break through. Int he 14th minute, Iniesta hit Cesc Fabregas with a long through ball as Spain’s false nine ran into the right of the box. Fabregas made for the line and chipped a ball back to the edge of the six, with David Silva heading the opening goal high into the left of net.
It was the first time in the tournament the Italians had trailed.
Spain maintained their intensity for a few more minutes before (surprisingly) ceding the ball to Italy. At halftime, the Italians held a 52-48 possession edge (per UEFA), though they’d generated no real chances. Aside from an early sequence that won three corner kicks in the span of a couple of minutes, Spain was largely untroubled.
Iker Casillas deserves most of the credit for that. Whenever Italy played a ball into his area, he was there with a small push, a one-handed punch, a slap or an outright block (when needed). It didn’t look especially pretty, but it was effective. Casillas often chose the less dramatic, more controlled option rather than do something to take himself out of position.
Toward halftime, after Italy had been dictating much of the game’s tempo, Spain caught them. A long ball out of the back was chested down to Jordi Alba, who went on a run after giving to Xavi. Hernández put a perfect through ball into the left of the area, where Alba was able to easily beat an oncoming Buffon.
Prandelli starting tweaking immediately after halftime. Antonio Cassano came off for Toto Di Natale. Ten minutes later, Thiago Motta was on for Ricardo Montolivo, a move that would quickly bring an end to Italy’s chances.
In the first half, Giorgio Chiellini had to be brought off with an injured left leg, making the Motto sub Italy’s last. Just past the hour, Motta’s hamstring appeared to give out. He was stretched from the pitch, eventually hobbling to te locker room. For the last half hour, Italy played with 10 men.
With his team down two goals, Cesare Prandelli will get a lot of sympathy after his third sub blew up in his face. It was still a risky, probably misguided, move.
From there forward, the match was typical Spain, the champions hogging the ball until the final whistle. Along the way, Fernando Torres scored (84′, from Xavi), Juan Mata scored (88′, from Torres), and Spain put up the most lopsided score in European Championships’ finals history.
And with the assist, Torres improbably won the Golden Boot. What? Yes: Among the handful of players who had three goals, only he and Mario Gómez had an assist (the first tiebreaker). Torres wins the award, having played fewer minutes than Gómez.
Not that they needed it, but the match played out as a statement game for Spain. With the determination they showed at the start of the match, it was as if La Roja wanted to answer everybody who’d complained about the way they won games. The way Italy played (not cowering into a shell) may have helped, but with a four-goal win, Spain provided a retort to those choosing to nit-pick at their style.
It was also a claim to being the best team of all time. The debates can never be settled – discussions of which team, across time, is superior – but by giving a resounding performance in a major competition final, Spain may have provided the trump card that can sway those barstool debates.
That makes two Euros and a World Cup in succession, the first time a European nation has won three straight major titles. It beg the question: How long will it last? It’s a question that will have to wait until Monday. Tonight, Spain gets one day to bask in the glow of their shockingly easy championship-clinching performance.
ProSoccerTalk is doing its best to keep you up to date on what’s going on in Poland and Ukraine. Check out the site’s Euro 2012 page and look at the site’s previews, predictions, and coverage of all the events defining UEFA’s championship.
MLS Snapshot: Houston Dynamo 0-2 New York City FC (video)
The game in 100 words (or less): With one goal already accomplished for New York City FC this season, Patrick Vieira’s group made positive strides in capturing another on Friday night in Houston. David Villa’s 20th and 21st tallies of the season gave the visitors the lead after halftime and NYCFC managed to hold onto the points from there. With just two matches remaining following the win over the Dynamo, NYCFC currently sits atop the Eastern Conference on 51 points. Meanwhile, the Dynamo remain nine points out of the final spot in the West with four matches to play.
73′ — Saunders watches as Rodriguez hits post — It can be a game of inches at times and the Dynamo were certainly on the wrong end of this one as Raul Rodriguez’s effort struck the post and stayed out.
SEOUL, South Korea (AP) The South Korean soccer league deducted nine points from league leader Jeonbuk Hyundai on Friday after one of the club’s employees was convicted of bribing referees in 2013.
The K-League also fined Jeonbuk 100 million won ($90,600). The club, which saw its 14-point lead over second-place FC Seoul reduced to a five-point margin, issued an apology and vowed to take measures to prevent it from happening again.
A court in Busan on Wednesday sentenced a Jeonbuk scout to a suspended prison term of two years for paying referees in exchange for favorable decisions in several league matches in 2013.
An official from Jeonbuk said the scout has been suspended by the team and it will soon make a decision whether to terminate his employment. He refused to be named, citing office rules.
The K-League had vowed reforms after being rocked by a massive match-fixing scandal in 2011, when 52 players were indicted for taking bribes in return for trying to manipulate the outcome of matches or betting their own money on the games.
The French football federation gave no explanation for coach Didier Deschamps’s decision to replace Mathieu with Eliaquim Mangala, only saying he made the move “following a discussion” with the Barcelona player. Mangala is currently on a season-long loan at Valencia from Manchester City.
France takes on Bulgaria on Oct. 7 at the Stade de France before traveling to Amsterdam to play the Netherlands three days later in Group A.
EXCLUSIVE: Michael Bradley on Toronto FC’s long-awaited renaissance
Times have changed in Toronto for the local football club. The Reds are no longer, to put it bluntly, the bad club that failed to deliver results to a passionate fan base expecting so much more.
A club that missed the playoffs in each of its first eight seasons has clinched a postseason berth for a second-straight season. And this year, for the first time ever, TFC will finish this season with more wins than losses.
You read that right. For the first time ever. Yes, it was that bad.
It would overstate things to say Bradley showed up and fixed things for the Reds, turning them from a bad big club to a big, bad one overnight; For one thing, TFC missed the playoffs during his first season and Bradley only netted twice in a return to MLS which was expected to be dominant (though he was, per 90, one of the best possession players in the league that season).
Yet as time as gone on, in an organization that frankly had not seen much winning at all, Bradley has not just led the way as a battler emerged from BMO Field; The 29-year-old TFC and USMNT captain now leads a winner, one he’s quick to point out comes from an organization, not any single personality.
“I’ve tried every day since I got here to spill my heart and soul into it and to try to help in every way that I can,” Bradley told ProSoccerTalk.
“For a lot of people who have been here for the last years to see the way that things have continued to move forward and progress, there’s a big sense of pride. We’re by no means where we want to be. There are big goals around here in terms of continuing to turn this into a team and a club that can compete and win on a regular basis.”
Yep, times have changed for the better. And at the center of it all, whether he admits it or not, is the steely reserve of an American in Canada.
Michael Bradley is deliberate in his choice of words, and pauses several times to make sure his point is clearly made.
The train powers along once he finds the right track, however.
It’s fitting, because Greg Vanney’s defensive system with Bradley works in a similar way. Patiently wait for the right time to take the ball, then surge forward and take no prisoners. Find Sebastian Giovinco. Find Jozy Altidore. Find Jonathan Osorio, or another attacker… or just fire away.
“On our best days, we have a team that plays in a real good way,” Bradley says. “When we have our best group on the field, our football is good, the ball moves quickly, we’re a team that is able to put the game on our terms with the ball but not do it in a way that’s not just needless possession.
“We circulate the ball, but also do it with an eye toward playing forward and make sure we get it to our dangerous attacking players quickly and in good moments. Defensively we’re able to tighten things up and found a way to make it very hard on other teams to play against us.”
Heading into Saturday night’s home match with DC United, TFC has won seven of its last 12 MLS matches. That stretch has seen Toronto lose just once, and the Reds have weathered an injury to reigning MLS MVP Giovinco with a win and three draws.
Bradley’s deliberate expression of feeling comes into play again when he considers the challenges of TFC’s summer, injuries not withstanding. The captain is thrilled with how the Reds have found contributions from all over the field, but would love to see their best XI for a sustained stretch of action.
Finding chemistry with a team during the MLS season, where a club can lose its best players for weeks at a time thanks to the unorthodox calendar, is a massive challenge. Bradley knows it’s not just Toronto who’s troubled by it, but he also senses how good the team could be with a season’s worth of build-up.
The excitement ratchets higher and higher in his voice as he contemplates the complementary pieces in a healthy, non-international break hampered Greg Vanney lineup. TFC went 1-2 during the Copa America, losing to the Red Bulls and Orlando City. Those points loom with Toronto in a three-way battle for the top of the East.
“We feel like we’re on a very good team, and I mention the other stuff because it’s a shame that over the course of a 34-game season there are so many other things that go into it,” Bradley said. “Which means you are not able to play your best team on as consistent a basis as you’d like.”
The conversation turns, briefly, to the United States men’s national team.
The leader of the unit, Bradley has been through the highs and lows of wearing the stars and stripes since a very young age.
The captain has 121 caps and 15 goals, a journey that began when he was capped at age 18. He’s seen the improbable Confederations Cup comeback run, the thrills of the 2010 World Cup, and several Dos a Ceros. He’s also seen the 2015 Gold Cup failure, the disheartening loss to Mexico in the CONCACAF Cup, and more positional banter than any player in U.S. history.
Given his lofty status within the federation, and his early start, he’s the right person to ask about the USMNT’s teenage sensation Christian Pulisic. And he’s happy to talk about the kid, though not about the big picture, and mentorship. Yeah, he talks to the kid about soccer. No, that’s not for media consumption. So stop asking.
“Christian is a really good kid,” Bradley said. “He’s smart, he’s into it, he’s talented, motivated.
“(But) Everybody needs to stop asking what kind of advice to give him. The most important thing for him is, and I said this to somebody last week, is to continue to find the most joy every day in playing, in training, in improving, in stepping on the field on Saturday and competing and trying to be as good as possible. As long as he never loses the joy of what it means to step on the field and play football, then he’s going to continue to improve and take himself to great places.”
You get the sense that, consciously or not, Michael Bradley has ushered these thoughts from personal experience.
The captain of America loves his adopted hometown north of the border.
And Bradley isn’t exactly measuring Toronto against a one-light city in the sticks. After leaving New Jersey as a teenager in 2005, Bradley has lived amongst the abbey and villages of Monchengladbach, the Dutch windmills of Friesland, and the many wonders of the Eternal City, Rome.
But there’s something in the fourth biggest North American city that works for Bradley.
“It’s a city that is so incredibly diverse,” Bradley begins. “When you get around different parts of the city, the types of people you meet and see who come from all over the world, that part is special. Since the first day that my family and I got here, this has felt like home.
“Our daughter was born here. Our son goes to kindergarten here now and comes home; He’s an American, he was born in Rome, but goes to kindergarten in Toronto and comes home every day singing, “O Canada”, because at the beginning the day that’s what they do. It’s an amazing city, and a place we’re proud to call home.”
Bradley is signed through the end of 2019, and Toronto has turned down several overseas pleas for the midfielder.
And TFC should be good for a long time. Only two rostered players are over 30: outstanding back Drew Moor and Benoit Cheyrou. This on a team that has won the joint-most road games in MLS, allowed the second-fewest goals, and ranks third in goal differential (plus-12).
“We’ve in some ways have such a high standard for ourselves that when you get home and you have a few games at home and you’re not able to find the winner, you’re not able to make that final play to win the games and take all three points, when you’re only able to come away with a tie, that people — and we include ourselves in this — are disappointed,” Bradley said.
“The feeling inside our group on certain days, lately even when we’ve tied a few of these games at home has been disappointment and frustration, and feeling like there was more there for us. That’s a positive thing. We’ve gotten ourselves to the point where we expect to step on the field every weekend and compete to win. It doesn’t matter who we’re playing against, and where we’re playing. That’s the mentality that we have.”
To sum it all up, a personal angle that might underscore the impressive turnaround in Canada’s largest city.
Living in Buffalo and loving the sport the way I do, my friends and I got in on TFC season tickets in 2008, Toronto’s second season. We’d make the 90-minute or 3-hour drive, depending on the city’s unholy, construction-driven traffic, and revel in the soccer paradise created by the Red Patch Boys.
Visits by River Plate, Pachuca, and Real Madrid sustained interest in the team, but in a way we became numb to names: Amado Guevera, Torsten Frings, and Danny Koevermans were trotted out and left without a playoff run. Taking a dozen or so day trips to watch losses that made the average at-best Maple Leafs look like 1980’s Oilers became too much to justify the cost.
Oddly enough, TFC went from hot new Toronto property to one that started to feel like just another entity. When Jermain Defoe and Julio Cesar didn’t spur a playoff run, morale seemed at an all-time low. As a soccer writer now with no true allegiance, it was more with a sigh of “Wouldn’t it be cool if they were good?” when Altidore, Vanney, and Giovinco joined Bradley. When Clint Irwin, Will Johnson, and Drew Moor joined mainstays Justin Morrow and Jonathan Osorio, there was even more legitimate reason for hope.
But hope is different from getting the job done, and that’s something for which Bradley and Vanney deserve a ton of credit. There are more Toronto demons to overcome — there’s little doubt a sports teams’ playoff stench can linger over a town once the postseason hits (Again, I’m from Buffalo) — but for now it’s worth lauding a club which has found its forward-thinking despite the skeletons in their Ontarian closet.