Andrea Pirlo, false nines, and Spain-Italy: Sunday’s Euro 2012 final playlist

Leave a comment

source: Getty Images

It’s strange to think of Italy as upstarts, but given what the Azzurri have been through since their 2006 World Cup, their presence in Sunday’s Euro 2012 final is a minor shock. They floundered at Euro 2008, leading to the dismissal of their coach. They finished last in their group at South Africa 2010. Grouped with Spain and Croatia at this tournament, Italy weren’t a sure bet to make the quarterfinals, particularly given a squad that lacked proven international scorers.

Three weeks later, Italy has earned a rematch their chance to claim another improbable title. In 2006, the Azzurri won their fourth world championship while their country’s domestic league was in the middle of the calciopoli scandal. This year, with another match-fixing probe engulfing Italian soccer, Italy has made another strangely timed run. That they’ve done so with a less-talented team than the one that won Germany 2006 emboldens conspiracy theorists ascribing undo connections between scandal and success.

Spain – the defending world and european champions – aren’t worried about the mystical as much as the practical. Italy has neither lost nor trailed in the tournament, having already claimed an opening match draw from the Spaniards. That the world’s top-ranked team played well against Italy and wasn’t able to get a win had to be engender some doubts.

Doubts or not, Spain still go into Sunday’s final marked favorites. They haven’t allowed a goal since Toto Di Natale scored in the teams’ first meeting, setting a record Euro record for the longest span without allowing a goal (a streak now up to 419 minutes). Between European Championships and World Cups, Spain have not allowed a knockout round goal since World Cup 2006.

Their quest to extend that streak begins at 2:45 p.m. Eastern on Sunday, when they’ll meet Italy in Kiev for the title of 2012 European champions. Here’s your playlist:

source:  1. Stories of threes and nines

Italy and Spain’s first meeting nearly broke the internet, with tactics freaks freaking out when a sweeper system went up against a team employing a false nine. Crudely translated: One team (Italy) was playing with too many defenders against another (Spain) with not enough forwards. Somehow, we got two goals out of a match that’s turned out to be one of the tournament’s best.

On Sunday, Italy will start with a conventional back four, though it’s unclear what Spain will do. They could see their first match struggles as caused by their lack of a striker. That would almost assuredly push Cesc Fabregas to the bench, even though Fabregas has arguably been their best attacker (when playing). He scored the goal versus Italy and was the team’s best playmaker when coming on against Portugal.

In that match, Vicente Del Bosqure gave Alvaro Negredo his first start of the tournament, trying yet another striking option. Negredo was also Del Bosque’s first sub after the Sevilla striker never properly utilized. Ultimately, the choice was little more than a hint that Del Bosque doesn’t have things figured out. Who knows which direction he’ll go in on Sunday.

2. Andrea and Mario

Italy’s had been a one-man show throughout most of the tournament, but with Mario Balotelli bagging two goals against Germany, Andrea Pirlo’s no longer the only star Spain will have to worry about. Fortunately for Vicente Del Bosque, the holders are well-equipped to handle both.

Against Pirlo, Spain will have a number players capable of pestering him. Xavi Hernandez is most likely. If Spain goes striker-less from the start, Cesc Fabregas will help. Also expect David Silva and Andres Iniesta to help, with Italy having almost no threat from the fullback positions. All of Spain’s players are used to the kind of high-intensity pressing that could disrupt Italy.

At the back, the holders have two defenders who match up well with Balotelli, even if a Sergio Ramos-Mario Balotelli confrontation could be explosive. But both Ramos and partner Gerard Pique have a combination of footspeed, athleticism, and strength that will keep them from being overmatched in one-on-one situations.

The bigger worry for Spain is whether their defense can avoid the mistakes that befell Germany – the type of mistakes that were responsible for Italy’s only goal during the teams’ group stage meeting.

source:  3. Relying on Andres

Even through all three of Spain’s forwards played well against Italy, Andres Iniesta was by far Spain’s most effective player. His willingness to dribble at and through defenders was Spain’s most reliable tactic, with the Barcelona star often forcing sweeper Daniele de Rossi into evasive action to snuff out movements.

Unfortunately, that tactic didn’t produce any goals in the first game. Though Iniesta started the movement that led to Spain’s equalizer, that goal came via combination play through the middle (David Silva finding Cesc Fabregas running through the left channel). It didn’t come through Iniesta’s ability to beat a man.

On Sunday, Iniesta will be going at a right side anchored by Andrea Barzagli. His injury during Italy’s first two matches caused Cesare Prandelli to go to a 3-5-2/5-3-2 formation. Since he’s been back, Italy’s gone 4-4-2 (or, 4-3-1-2) and have not allowed an open play goal.

Iniesta may be one of the best players in the world, but Italy’s performance since Barzagli’s return serves as a cautionary note. If Spain’s relying on Iniesta to break down Italy’s right side, the tactic’s unlikely to be more successful than it was three weeks ago.

4. No more patience

Last round, we noted many of Spain’s opening goals during their string of knockout round victories have come in the second half. Although they didn’t break through against Portugal, Spain certainly looked better at minute 120 than minute one, hinting Spain’s still capable of winning an attritional battle.

Italy doesn’t seem likely wilt by attrition. Though Cesare Prandelli has Italy playing with the ball more, they remain very comfortable ceding control of the game and waiting for their opponents to make mistakes in attack. That’s how they got their two goals against Germany.

That leaves Spain in the uncomfortable position of needing to increase pressure on Italy while maintaining more than a mere safety net at the back . You would think, given Germany’s problems breaking down Italy, one of those two things would have to give. Spain would either have to be more aggressive – more readily push the likes of Jordi Alba and Xabi Alonso higher into the attacking third – and push for a goal, or they could prioritize their shape at the back and perhaps end up waiting for an Italian mistake.

That paradoxical tension will define Sunday’s match. The more aggressive Spain are, the more they play into Italy’s hands. But if they aren’t aggressive enough, they risk Italy taking the game from them, as the Italians almost did in group play.

In that way, this will be the most difficult of Spain’s three major finals since 2008. Both Germany (`08) and the Netherlands (`10) were there for the taking. The Spanish could control the game without worrying about how that fed into their opponents’ attack. On Sunday, unless they’re careful (or happen to score early), the qualities that make Spain so dominant could become their undoing.

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.

Struggling Atleti in unfamiliar territory under Simeone

Photo by Oscar J. Barroso / AFP7 / Europa Press Sports via Getty Images
Leave a comment

MADRID — This is uncharted territory for many Atletico Madrid fans.

Few other times in recent years have they seen their team struggle so much under Diego Simeone.

[ VIDEO: Haaland has played 59 minutes, scored 5 goals for Dortmund ]

Few other times have they seen their coach fail so often while trying to put the team back on track.

Atletico hit a new low under Simeone on Thursday when it was eliminated by third-division club Cultural Leonesa in the round of 32 of the Copa del Rey. The 2-1 loss in extra time was the team’s worst result in the cup competition since losing to third-tier club Albacete at the same stage in 2011-12.

Two days after that loss in 2011, Atletico hired the then-mostly unknown Simeone to replace Gregorio Manzano, a move that kick-started one of the club’s most successful eras and led to a Spanish league title, two Europa League trophies and two Champions League final appearances.

Atletico did go through difficult moments under Simeone, including when the team failed to advance past the group stage of the Champions League a couple of seasons ago.

“There were always complicated moments in past seasons, maybe after we didn’t make it in the Champions League, or when we lost in the Champions League finals,” Simeone said. “After being at the club for so long, things like this can happen, although they shouldn’t happen.”

There is a greater sense of urgency about the team’s struggles this time.

In addition to Wednesday’s embarrassing Copa del Rey elimination, Atletico lost the Spanish Super Cup final to Real Madrid on Jan. 12, and already is eight points off the Spanish league lead after 20 matches.

[ MORE: Report: Man United’s list of possible new strikers revealed ]

Before, there used to be a notion that Simeone would quickly turn things around and put the team back on track, but this time there aren’t many signs things will improve again soon.

Atletico has yet to impress since undergoing its biggest squad revamp under Simeone at the end of last season, when it lost Antoine Griezmann and other veteran players such as Filipe Luis and Diego Godin. Young Portugal forward Joao Felix, who arrived to replace Griezmann after a transfer from Benfica worth more than 120 million euros ($133 million), has yet to meet expectations.

More concerning, Atletico is not being nearly as effective as it used to be, when it always seemed to find a way to win matches despite not playing well.

The team remains solid defensively — it has the second-best defense in the Spanish league with 14 goals conceded — but it hasn’t been able to do much in attack recently.

“Everything is harder when you can’t score,” Simeone said.

Only seven teams have scored fewer goals than Atletico’s 22 in the 20-team standings.

Diego Costa has been mostly out injured, and Victor “Vitolo” Machin and Alvaro Morata haven’t done much in attack. Morata is the team’s leading scorer with 10 goals in all competitions, and no one else has more than five.

“We have to be humble enough to be self-critical,” Simeone said. “We need to keep working to try to be ready for the challenges that we have ahead of us. We have a very good squad and I’m sure that the results that we want will start arriving soon.”

Atletico biggest chance to rebound will come next month against European champion Liverpool in the last 16 of the Champions League. The first leg will be on Feb. 18 in Spain.

Mourinho in favor of PL’s winter break, but says timing all wrong

Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Jose Mourinho seems to be quite happy that the Premier League will implement its first-ever winter break next month, allowing players a bit of rest and recovery time during a marathon campaign, but says its timing makes the break almost worthless for clubs competing in European competitions.

[ VIDEO: Haaland has played 59 minutes, scored 5 goals for Dortmund ]

The next four weeks will play out as follows for Tottenham Hotspur: FA Cup against Southampton this weekend; PL fixture against Manchester City next weekend; the following weekend off which results in two weeks without a game; PL fixture against Aston Villa the following weekend; Champions League first leg against RB Leipzig three days later.

In Mourinho’s perfect world, that first round of PL fixtures following the break would be held a week earlier, leaving the seven English clubs competing in the Champions League and Europa League with a week and a half between games before setting out once again to chase European glory. Instead, Tottenham, Man City, Liverpool and Chelsea will all have a quick turnaround from PL action to UCL competition — quotes from the Guardian:

“It is what it is. I’m not happy that the break comes in the wrong moment. The break should be before the Champions League and, in the end, before the Champions League we don’t have the break. We have to play Aston Villa on the Sunday, playing [RB Leipzig three] days later. So we don’t really care about the break, honestly.”

Mourinho’s point is a solid one: if the winter break is going to exist — and it should — then why shouldn’t its benefits be maximized? Non-European sides — typically those with smaller squads — would still have the full two weeks between games, while those in Europe are able to better leverage their slightly larger squads with only 10 or 11 days between games — still a lengthy break relative to the rest of the season.

[ MORE: Report: Man United’s list of possible new strikers revealed ]

It’s only the first year of the winter break in the PL, so perhaps hopefully they’ll receive Mourinho’s criticism — and that of any other managers — constructively.

Serie A: AC Milan extends unbeaten run since Zlatan’s arrival

Leave a comment

BRESCIA, Italy (AP) Ante Rebic scored his third goal in two matches, goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma was superb and AC Milan won 1-0 at relegation-threatened Brescia on Friday to climb into the Europa League places in Serie A.

[ MORE: Report: Man United’s list of possible new strikers revealed ]

Rebic, who scored twice in a win over Udinese last weekend, pounced on a loose ball directly in front of the goal following a cross from Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the 71st minute.

Since Ibrahimovic’s return to Milan over the holiday break, Milan is unbeaten with four wins and a draw across all competitions.

Donnarumma produced several difficult saves to deny Dimitri Bisoli and Ernesto Torregrossa.

Also, Milan fullback Theo Hernandez hit the crossbar in the closing minutes.

The Rossoneri moved up to sixth place, four points behind fifth-place Atalanta.

[ MORE: Solskjaer’s transfer update; positive on rebuild ]

“Our goal is to qualify for Europe,” Donnarumma said. “We’ve got to continue like this and not rest for a moment. There’s another big Italian Cup match coming up with Torino midweek and we want to reach the semifinals.

“We’ll take it one game at a time and try to keep this momentum going.”

Brescia was without Mario Balotelli, who was suspended for two matches after protesting a booking last weekend that ended up with the striker being sent off.

Brescia remained one point above last-place Genoa.

FA Cup: Sheffield Wednesday into 5th round; Derby headed for replay

Photo by James Chance/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Sheffield Wednesday became the first club to reach the fifth round of the 2019-20 FA Cup by beating Queens Park Rangers at Loftus Road on Friday.

[ MORE: Report: Man United’s list of possible new strikers revealed ]

The Owls took a 1-0 lead into halftime after Morgan Fox squeezed his shot past the goalkeeper from a tight angle, and Sam Winnall put the EFL Championship side 2-0 up by slotting the ball home just before full-time. QPR pulled a goal back through Nahki Wells just moments later, but it wasn’t enough and the game finished 2-1.

It’s the second time in three seasons that Wednesday has reached the fifth round after doing so just twice in their previous 17 seasons.

[ MORE: Solskjaer’s transfer update; positive on rebuild ]

Elsewhere, fellow Championship side Derby County, featuring Wayne Rooney who played all 90 minutes, couldn’t see off League Two side Northampton Town and will be forced into the dreaded replay after struggling to a scoreless draw away from home.

The draw for the fifth round will be held on Monday at 2:20 p.m. ET, prior to kickoff of Bournemouth v. Arsenal.