When a team reaches the European Championship finals, we have a habit of remembering them as good. Take Germany in 2008, the team whose defeat signaled the beginning of four years (and still counting) of Spanish dominance. Here's the lineup that started that match, in case you've forgotten:
Germany (4-2-3-1): Jens Lehmann; Philipp Lahm, Christoph Metzelder, Per Mertesacker, Arne Friedrich; Thomas Hitzlsperger, Torsten Frings; Lukas Podolski, Michael Ballack, Bastian Schweinsteiger; Miroslav Klose.
As far as Germany teams go, that's distinctly average. There are some excellent players there - Ballack, Schweinsteiger and Lahm are/were obviously world-class - but both truly elite talents on that side were being played out of position, with Lahm better suited for right back, Schweinsteiger miscast as a winger and Ballack preferring to sit a little deeper.
Klose's obviously a perfectly capable striker, and Frings was, once upon a time, a very good pivot midfielder, but it's difficult to look at that Germany side and compare it to the current one without snickering, if only because Lukas Podolski is, somehow, still starting. It's just not particularly good.
Germany finished second in Group B, finishing with six points despite a 2-1 loss to Croatia. They then beat Portugal 3-2 (their only particularly good game of the tournament), edged past a Turkey side that probably shouldn't have been there in the semifinals, and were handily dispatched by Fernando Torres in the final. They weren't particularly special, but had a good run before they were eventually seen off by the rightful winners.
But what we remember is that they were Euro 2008 runners up. They did better in that tournament than the 2012 vintage, despite being an obviously inferior team.
That's the magic of tournament football. Teams at the European Championship play, at most, six matches. That's not an enormous number when it comes to determining the best side in Europe. Cream rises to the top, of course, but the fact that the best team in Europe doesn't win can be divined from the fact that Denmark and Greece make up a combined 40 percent of the last twenty years' worth of winners.
'Inferior' teams make deep runs all the time in this sort of format, and with all due respect to Italy that's exactly what they are. They're not one of the best two teams in the tournament. They probably weren't one of the best two teams in Group C. Look at this record:
- 1-1 vs. Spain
- 1-1 vs. Croatia
- 2-0 vs. Ireland
- 0-0 vs. England (advance 4-2 on penalties)
- 2-1 vs. Germany
That's two win and three draws, and one of those wins was an unimpressive slog against the worst team of the tournament, notable only for a spectacular last-minute goal by Mario Balotelli. There are impressive truly performances in there - the win against Germany, obviously, was fantastic - but by and large, Italy have been good, not great.
That's not to say that they don't have a reasonable chance of beating Spain in the final. Strange things happen in football matches and the two teams have already played each other to a (largely undeserved, for Italy) draw. There's nothing wrong with a good team getting hot at the right time, benefiting from a dose of luck, and winning a major trophy. That's how trophies tend to be won.
It's fascinating to see the narrative essentially get retrofitted to accommodate a surprise team making the finals. Andrea Pirlo has had a brilliant tournament, but from the way the press would have you hear it they've suddenly unearthed a long-lost top-ten-in-world-football talent. The simple truth is, however, that he's been allowed to dominate games. When the opposition has made moves to stop him, such as when Croatia pushed Luka Modric on top of him in the second half of their group-stage draw, his effectiveness has been seriously curtailed. That said, he's wily enough to exploit many of the countermeasures that sides can deploy against him and it'll be fascinating to see just how he deals with Spain on Sunday.
Elsewhere, there's the core of what could be an excellent side. Mario Balotelli is exactly what he's always been - an erratic talent who can have world class games. Roma's Daniele di Rossi has been superb, especially when you consider that he's been forced to shuttle between the defence and the midfield. Gianluigi Buffon is looking surprisingly vulnerable at times, but he's still contributing with some fine (and important saves). That makes four elite talents - one striker, two midfielders and the goalkeeper.
Of the rest of the players, many of them have been disappointing. Pirlo's Juventus teammate Claudio Marchisio hasn't had the impact that his previous season in Serie A had hinted at. AC Milan striker Antonio Cassano's had one match in this tournament that would particularly worry Alvaro Arbeloa. The defenders have been their stupendously average* selves. Compare that lineup to Spain, who are overflowing with quality at virtually every position but right back. On paper, it's not a contest.
*Sorry, Giorgio Chiellini fans!
If destiny was behind Italy, it had a funny way of showing it. After two points in their first two Group C matches, they had to rely on Spain and Croatia not to arrange a 2-2 draw that would have seen both through (and, to make the easy joke, how ironic would it have been if Italy had been knocked out via match-fixing?). A penalty shootout against England might seem like a pretty easy route into the quarters, but after Riccardo Montolivo's miss Italy had to rely on the Three Lions having an attack of the Ashleys to make it through.
Azzurri fans won't care one bit, of course. Their team has a chance to win Euro 2012; only one other country can still say the same. But let's not pretend we should have seen this coming. This is a good team on a very good run, not a side that has any real claim to be the most talented on the continent.
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