Spain earns the big prize, but here are my Euro 2012 tourney awards
Andres Iniesta helped Spain become the first nation to win back-to-back Euro titles
Despite losing in the final, Italy was buoyed by Mario Balotelli and Cesare Prandelli
Worst of the tournament? Hard to overlook the failures of Netherlands and Russia
|Final :: Kiev, Ukraine|
Silva 14', Alba 41'
Torres 84', Mata 88'
Spain ended two debates once and for all with its master-class performance in a sensational 4-0 Euro 2012 final victory against Italy: No, it is not boring to play with six midfielders and no clear center-forward; and yes, it deserves to be called one of the greatest teams of all time after becoming the first side to win three major international tournaments in succession.
This was a tournament to remember. Fourteen of the 16 sides went into their final group games with a chance of qualifying; there was drama in the knockout rounds (thanks to Cristiano Ronaldo and penalty shootouts) and a shock finalist in Italy. The 16-team format makes way for 24 teams in 2016 in France. However UEFA spins it, the European Championships won't be the same.
Now, on to my awards for the best -- and worst -- of Euro 2012.
Best Player: Andres Iniesta, Spain
The influential midfielder earned yet another Man of the Match performance in the rout of Italy, becoming the only Spanish player to win the award at least once in each of Spain's three successful tournaments. It was his exquisite pass that set up the final's opening goal (see below).
In the group stages, he was just as dominant -- earning the Man of the Match against both Italy and Croatia, then he made light of France's quarterfinal tactic of starting two right backs by splitting both of them for Jordi Alba to cross for Xabi Alonso's opening goal. After that, he simply moved over to the right side to create more havoc. He was the player most likely to make the breakthrough in the semifinal against Portugal -- he also calmly scored a penalty from the shootout, it almost goes without saying -- before another virtuoso performance in the final.
"When he has the ball, it's like everything else stops," Fernando Torres told The Observer. "Like the camera is going in slow motion. He's decisive."
And so it proved, once again.
Best Final Moment: Sublime Spain
So outstanding was Spain's performance, numerous moments from Spain's dominant first 45 minutes stand out. But two sublime passes rise above the others: Iniesta's ball to Cesc Fabregas in the build-up to the first goal; and left back Jordi Alba's one-two with midfielder Xavi Hernandez on the second.
Alba's first-ever goal for Spain was particularly sensational. Xavi trisected Italy's backline with a perfectly weighted ball to former Alba, the one-time left winger who coolly slotted it past Italian keeper Gigi Buffon to make it 2-0 and leave Italy with a mountain to climb.
By the time Fernando Torres scored in the 84th minute and set up another Juan Mata's goal in the 88th, the match was long over -- but the joy on Torres' face was memorable. As a striker who has had his fair share of tough times in the past 12 months -- explained here -- this was a great ending to a record-breaking season for him. Maybe he just realized he had won the Golden Boot award.
Best Goal: Mario Balotelli, Italy vs. Germany
Honorable mentions: Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Sweden vs. France; Danny Welbeck, England vs. Sweden
Sometimes a brilliant goal is worth more than just a goal -- it can also have a dramatic effect it has on the player who scored it, and also on the opposition. Balotelli's second goal in Italy's 2-1 semifinal victory over Germany is a good example.
The mercurial striker clearly had learned his lesson from failing to shoot against Spain and having a chip blocked against England, so he wasted little time in smashing the ball past German keeper Manuel Neuer. It was powerful and devastating -- and seemed to knock the wind out of Germany. It also proved to be the winning goal. Ibrahimovic's volley against France was a deluxe version of Balotelli's against Ireland, while Welbeck's superb twist-and-flick was a rare bright moment for England.
Best Coach: Cesare Prandelli, Italy
Honorable mentions: Vicente del Bosque, Spain; Paulo Bento, Portugal; Slaven Bilic, Croatia; Fernando Santos, Greece
Prandelli gets it, not for picking a front line of Balotelli and Antonio Cassano and living to tell the tale, but for totally overhauling Italy's playing philosophy in the space of two years with largely the same group of players.
Reaching the quarterfinals was seen as a good achievement -- after Italy finished rock bottom in its World Cup group in 2010, goalkeeper Gigi Buffon said it would be a miracle if it even qualified for the European championships -- while the manner of the victories against England and Germany has made Italy proud of its team again.
The successful integration of players like Balotelli, Thiago Motta and Riccardo Montolivo, shows Prandelli wants a side to reflect the diversity of Italian society; and just as Italy leads the way in creative fields like fashion and art, so he has encouraged the Azzurri to shed its 'catenaccio' image. "He's like Galileo," Gianluca Vialli told the BBC. "He's a visionary."
Producing a winning team on top of all that is an impressive achievement. And losing to Spain does not lessen what Italy accomplished at the European championships.
Most overblown story: Spain can't succeed without a center-forward
Honorable mention: Goalkeepers can't be captains
Spain coach Vicente del Bosque has somehow maintained his cool throughout all the questions, doubts and the criticism about his selections, every one of which (bar Alvaro Negredo's start against Portugal, quickly rectified) was vindicated.
The final was his crowning moment: Spain already had four shots on goal before it opened the scoring after 13 minutes after outstanding combination player between Iniesta, Fabregas and David Silva. At the press conference the day before the match, Del Bosque shrugged as, for the umpteenth time, he explained that Spain plays a 4-3-3 formation. The attacking three? "Iniesta, Fabregas and Silva, they play up front," said the coach. And who knows, if Iniesta's pass to Fabregas had been met by a traditional striker, he might have fancied a shot rather than running to the byline and cutting it back for Silva to score.
Best Save: Iker Casillas, Spain vs. Croatia
Honorable mentions: Stipe Pletikosa, Croatia vs. Italy; Joe Hart, England vs. France; Przemyslaw Tyton, Poland vs. Greece
No surprise that one of the best individual goalkeeping moments belonged to the captain of the winner. Casillas, who went more than 500 minutes without conceding a goal, oversaw Euro 2012's tightest defense. But it was his point-blank stop in Spain's final group game that may have kept Spain in the competition. After Croatia's Luka Modric crossed for Ivan Rakitic to head seven yards from goal, Casillas moved sharply to punch the header away.
Breakout performance: Jordi Alba, Spain
Honorable mention: Alan Dzagoev (Russia), Theodor Gebre Selassie (Czech Republic
When Spain won Euro 2008 four years ago, Alba was representing La Roja at the Under-19s edition of the competition; when it won the World Cup, he had just competed his first season at Valencia, who snapped him up from Cornella after his education at Barcelona's academy La Masia. Even 12 months ago, Alba had not yet made an international appearance.
But this month he has been the tournament's most outstanding left back -- and he topped it off with a marvelous team goal to kill off the final just before half-time. No wonder, then, that last week he completed a return back to Barcelona, joining seven of his new teammates in the final.
"He's flying at the moment, he's a hell of a player," his defensive team-mate Gerard Pique told ABC. "He's got it all, and more: defends, attacks, maintains position when necessary, goes up at the right time, crosses, shoots." Xavi added: "A spectacular player, a 10-out-of-10 guy. He's competitive, aggressive, defensively strong, and he's ready."
What's more, Alba is just 23 and he only cost Barcelona €14m. What a bargain.