*Editor’s Note: We would like to welcome Mitchell Tierney to the writing team at LastWordOnSports. Mitchell is an avid fan of international football and hockey*
After the 2010 World Cup in South Africa it seemed that the international career of then 31-year old Italian Midfielder Andrea Pirlo had come to a disheartening conclusion. Pirlo and his Italian National team exited the tournament with a whimper after finishing in last place with only 2 points in a Group F, which included New Zealand (Ranked 100th in the world by FIFA), Slovakia (39) and Paraguay (22). Furthermore, the once legendary Pirlo who was named man of the match in the 2006 World Cup Final against France, only played in one match and didn’t even start playing 34 minutes as a substitute against Slovakia.
Fast forward to 2012 and very few people would have predicted that at 33 it would be Pirlo who would be leading the Italians all the way to the European Cup Final. For Pirlo it was a breath of fresh air that transformed him back into the best player in Italy and possibly the best player of Euro 2012. Pirlo left the club he has been with since 2001 on a free transfer to join Turin-based club Juventus. With Juventus winning the Serie A title, and going undefeated during that time Pirlo was able to regain some of the confidence that had alluded him since that disastrous 2010 World Cup.
When Italy face Spain in the European Cup Final at the Olympic Stadium in Kiev the majority of the narrative will take place in the middle of the pitch. This is the place where Italy have been the most dangerous in their last two matches, versus England in the Quarter Finals and Germany in the Semi Finals. The Italian midfield of Daniele De Rossi, Claudio Marchisio, Riccardo Montolivo and Pirlo has been the most underrated in the tournament becoming the key to victory in every match for Italy despite an almost equally solid backline.
However, of all these names it has been Pirlo who has been the most important for the Italians both in Midfield and overall thus far. In the first match against Spain, the only foresight as to what we might see in the final, Pirlo cut through the Spanish midfield to play a through ball that fell perfectly on to the feet of Italian Striker Antonio Di Natale. In the second game of the tournament Pirlo struck a ball from the upper right corner of the box past Croatian goalkeeper Stipe Pletikosa for the tournaments only goal from a direct free kick. His efforts earned him man of the match. Pirlo once again produced from a dead ball against Ireland when his corner kick connected with Antonio Cassano in the 35th minute.
During the knockout stage Pirlo, like the Italian team around him, stepped up his performance. Against England he was the man of the match for the second time in the tournament. He was by far the most dangerous player on an Italian team that dominated possession for most of the 90 and extra time. A large part of his dominance can be attributed to England who decided to give him all the time in the world to gain confidence on the ball. While England, somehow, were not hurt by Pirlo’s work during open play they certainly felt his quality during penalties. His Italian team trailing in England in penalties Pirlo stepped up to the spot and calmly chipped the ball over diving English goalkeeper Joe Hart to get his squad back on track and disintegrate the confidence of the English goalkeeper.
Going into the Semi Final against a heavily favoured German squad Pirlo was already considered an Italian hero and would have probably been named the player of the tournament even if his side had been eliminated. But Pirlo, nor his Italian compatriots were ready to except that fate. Pirlo may have saved the game before it ever really began, clearing an early German attempt off the line into the safety of Italian keeper Gianluigi Buffon. Pirlo’s real stamp on the game came in the 20th minute. The goal, Mario Ballotelli’s first, was largely credited to Antonio Cassano. However, upon review Pirlo played the same if not a bigger role in the finished product. It was his sublime ball that found Italian left back Giorgio Chiellini who put it through to Cassano who’s cross found the head of the Manchester City man. Once again, even after the warning that was the England game Germany did not close down Pirlo nearly enough and it ended up costing them dearly.
Returning to the final it was Pirlo who troubled the Spanish the most the first time around and it could very well be that same tale when they meet in Kiev with the title on the line. The Spanish have to find a way to get one of their midfield three to shadow Pirlo or convince Torres, Fabregas or Negredo, whomever plays the Centre Forward role , to track back and take away the space that Pirlo has so far been readily granted. On the Italian side of things it will be curious to see what formation Italian manager Cesare Prandelli, the most astute tactician in the tournament, will start against the Spanish. Will it be the 4-1-3-2 formation that the Italians used to great success against the Germans in the Semi Finals? Or will it be the 3-5-2 formation used against the Spanish earlier in the tournament. Could it even be a new formation that Prandelli dreams up to try to secure his squad their first Henri Delaunay Trophy since 1968 when the beat Yugoslavia 2-0 during a replay? It will all be revealed on Sunday.
However, with a 3-5-2 formation the Italians could probably cause the Spanish the most trouble by clogging up the midfield and allowing Pirlo more time and space on the ball as he would become more difficult to mark. The back three would include Giorgio Chiellini on the left with Andrea Barzagli in the centre and Federico Balzaretti on the right. In the midfield Italy should line up Pirlo centrally with Riccardo Montolivo and Claudio Marchisio to his right while Daniele De Rossi and Christian Maggio to the left. Upfront the Strikers remain the same with Antonio Cassano lining up alongside Semi Final hero Mario Ballotelli.
…and that is the Last Word.
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