The Euro 2012 final can be and has been touted as a match between two of the world's superpowers in football. With five World Cups and three European Championships to their names, it is certainly a battle between two of the sport's giants, but that does not make the two teams similar at all, historically or now. In fact, the match is a clash of two very, very different teams.
Spain was the tournament favorites, while Italy entered the tournament in the midst of a match-fixing scandal and was a popular pick to be upset. Spain is one win away from a record-setting third consecutive major tournament trophy, whereas Italy went out in the quarterfinals at the Euros four years ago and was an embarrassment two years ago at the World Cup. Spain built up a reputations over decades as skillful, entertaining and consistent underachievers as opposed to the boring and defensive, but effective Italians.
More than anything, though, this is a match-up between two extremely different managers. Spain's Vicente del Bosque puts his team out pretty much the same way match after match. Sometimes he may play a striker and other times he won't, but it doesn't vastly alter the way that they play. Spain is who it is, and it will play the same way regardless of team or opposition, but that isn't true of Italy.
Cesare Prandelli can play three or four at the back, he can move Daniele De Rossi around, he can play extremely narrow or he can find width. From match to match, Italy's team and tactics are a toss up and even when Prandelli comments on what he says he will do, nobody is ever sure if he is telling the truth or play mind games with the opposition.
But the greatest difference in the two managers is not their style, their teams' styles or even their capabilities. Heading into the final, what stands out most is just how little is on the line for del Bosque, while it could make Prandelli's career.
Spain is the heavy favorite heading into the final, as was always going to be the case so long as it played anyone except for Germany in Kiev. While Spain can achieve immortality with a win, del Bosque cannot. Luis Aragonés guided Spain to its Euro 2008 title, so del Bosque cannot claim all three major tournament titles to himself. Instead, all that the final can do for del Bosque is make him the man who did so little with so much.
If Spain loses, the arrows will be sharpened and pointed directly at del Bosque. Did he play with a striker or not? Did he play the right striker? Why did he play a double pivot when he has the world's best lone holding midfielder in Sergio Busquets? Del Bosque will have gotten all of that wrong if Spain loses, while a win is expected and the result of extraordinary talent.
At this point, there is little that del Bosque can add to his resume. He is a two-time UEFA Champions League winner and two-time La Liga winner at the club level and he has the 2010 World Cup to his name. That is just as a manager, which came after a long and successful playing career.
A Euro title, as tremendous an accomplishment as it is, will not change del Bosque's reputation as a manager. His reputation is that of a legendary manager and there is no improving upon that, even with another trophy, because there is no up from legend. That said, there is a way down and a loss to an Italy team without as much talent as Spain all while critics question his tactics is a way down for del Bosque.
None of that is true for Prandelli, who has all to gain and nothing to lose in the final. Italy is not supposed to be in the final, and having gone undefeated in its first five matches versus Spain, Croatia, Ireland, England and Germany is already miles better than anyone expected of the scandal-ridden team that did not muster a single win in its last tournament. Euro 2012 is already a smashing success for the azzurri and Prandelli has taken his deserved plaudits for that success.
Unlike del Bosque, Prandelli doesn't have a history of success. His run to the final is already his crowning achievement and should his azzurri upset heavily favored Spain, it will be atop his resume until the day he dies. As of now, the only competition on that resume is getting Verona and Venezia promoted from Serie B, both of which are more than a decade old.
Euro 2012 is it for Prandelli. He is 54 years old and has been managing since 1990. This isn't a young up-and-coming manager, and while it is possible that he can parlay this success into a job with a big club where trophies follow, this will likely be the pinnacle of his managing career. An unlikely run to a Euro final is a mighty fine pinnacle, but a European championship, which would be just the second in Italy's history, would put him in rarefied air.
Del Bosque enters Sunday already at his ceiling and with a floor ready to drop out from under him. Prandelli heads to Kiev on a stable floor with no ceiling in sight. Spain and Italy may both be world powers, but they are very different teams and they are most different in the dugout. There, del Bosque and Prandelli are playing the same game for the same trophy, but for vastly different stakes.
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