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July 2012

Key questions for the second half of the campaign – Part 2: The relegation battle

28 Jul 2012(Sat)

The break in J1 action for the J. League Special Match and the start of the Olympic Games didn’t quite mark the halfway point of the season – that had come one matchday earlier on 7 July – but it does provide us with a fine opportunity to stop and reflect upon the state of play so far. Football Japan asks six key questions that will shape the remaining 16 games between now and 1 December. (Part 1, looking at the J1 title race, can be found here.)

4. Hours before the Olympic final, will the Osaka derby decide who goes down?

Japan’s chances of being involved in the gold medal match of the men’s Olympic football competition at Wembley on 11 August just got exponentially greater – after Yuki Otsu’s shock winner against Spain put them on course to top Group D and thus likely avoid the far harder, Brazil-infested route to the final. Still a lot of ifs and buts, of course, but (there’s another) the U-23s’ race for medals coincides with and could influence a crucial stage in the battle to avoid the drop to J2.

Roughly three hours before kickoff in London, the final whistle will sound on the second Osaka derby of 2012. The
ongoing crisis at Gamba Osaka, title contenders until the final minutes of the 2011 campaign, has been covered here at length before, with the key point being that they still need to find a third team bad enough to finish below them. Almost counter-intuitively, given the respective levels of excitement surrounding the playing resources now assembled at the city’s two clubs, the most likely candidate to become this third set of jokers is actually Cerezo Osaka. Less than 15 months on from the derby that clinched Cerezo a place in the last eight of the Asian Champions League, next month’s encounter comes at the peak of a crucial run of games that could determine which Osaka remains in the top flight for 2013.

The reverse fixture at Nagai on the second weekend of this season highlighted the contrast between a tactically clueless Gamba in turmoil and the fluid passing of a young Cerezo outfit with masses of exciting potential – built around the attacking talents of Hiroshi Kiyotake and Kim Bo-Kyung, plus the volante pairing of Hotaru Yamaguchi and Takahiro Ogihara. But all too often since then, they have flattered to deceive – lacking the nous to grind out results and instead losing by one goal on seven occasions, including an ignominious reverse in Sapporo.

Right now, all four of the aforementioned key players are busy in the United Kingdom, with Kim Bo-Kyung set to remain there after the Olympics at Cardiff City and Hiroshi Kiyotake having already completed a transfer to 1. FC Nürnberg of the Bundesliga. One-time (literally) Brazilian international Fábio Simplício, 32, has been snapped up to replace the former in a notable coup from Roma. But Cerezo simply do not have the leeway for their season to be disrupted by transfers and temporary absentees lest the six-point advantage they currently hold over their neighbours be quickly overturned. Gamba, meanwhile, have now reached the point where they are probably reliant on both a derby win and an immediate impact from the returning Leandro.

5. What impact might the mid-season managerial changes have on the relegation battle?

Before the derby, Gamba’s next two fixtures are against the two sides immediately above Cerezo – away to 13th-placed Vissel Kobe today and at home to Omiya Ardija in 14th the following Saturday. Vissel, of course, are now managed by the legendary former Gamba boss Akira Nishino, who led the blue-and-black half of Osaka to league, cup, and continental glory during a ten-year reign that was terminated abruptly at the end of last season.

His mid-season arrival up the road in Kobe, as a replacement for Masahiro Wada, probably won’t be enough to realise the naively ambitious owners’ dreams of title challenges this year, but ought at least to avert the risk of candidacy for relegation in Gamba’s stead. This is now the task facing Zdenko Verdenik at Omiya, who currently lie just one point ahead of Cerezo but have shown signs of promise since the Slovenian’s arrival with victory over Shimizu S-Pulse and a creditable draw away to Sanfrecce Hiroshima.

If these managerial changes do serve to narrow the options available for Gamba to target, then they must still ensure at the very least to finish ahead of Albirex Niigata. The passionately-supported side from up near the Sea of Japan coast were an obvious pick to go down before the start of the campaign, and a tally of nine points from their opening 13 games seemed to confirm the inevitability of this prediction.

But the arrival of former Jubilo Iwata boss Masaaki Yanagishita has suddenly shored up the leaky defence and prompted a run of eight points from five matches since the World Cup qualifiers. It might be cruel to point out that this sudden success has also coincided with the dropping of Kisho Yano to the bench, but Albirex are already ahead of Gamba and just two points behind Cerezo. If this is more than just the short-term boom of a new manager, the Osaka derby might just live on next year in J2.

6. Are Consadole Sapporo the worst J1 team of all time?

Still, it could be worse. Or rather, in Consadole Sapporo’s case, it surely couldn’t get any worse. With just four points mustered so far from a possible 54 – that win over Cerezo augmenting an opening day draw with Iwata – the men from Hokkaido are well on course to ‘beating’ the unenviable record of Bellmare Hiratsuka and their final J1 points tally of 13 in 1999. And even that was in a 30-game season. Consadole will have to more than treble their current rate of accumulation to match the 16 points in 34 matches achieved by Yokohama FC in 2007 and the renamed Shonan Bellmare in 2010.

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Key questions for the second half of the campaign – Part 1: The title race

27 Jul 2012(Fri)

The break in J1 action for the J. League Special Match and the start of the Olympic Games didn’t quite mark the halfway point of the season – that had come one matchday earlier on 7 July – but it does provide us with a fine opportunity to stop and reflect upon the state of play so far. Football Japan asks six key questions that will shape the remaining 16 games between now and 1 December. (Part 2, looking at the battle to avoid the drop, will be published here tomorrow.)

1. Do the new big two have the legs? (Or even the top four, for that matter?)

Unquestionably, Sanfrecce Hiroshima and Vegalta Sendai are the stories of the season so far. After 18 rounds, the breakthrough duo have stretched out a five-point cushion over the bigger names below to decisively underline their genuine title credentials, with Hiroshima edging ahead of long-time leaders Sendai on goals scored following their quick-fire 3-0 thrashing of Kawasaki Frontale last time out.

Despite the departure of highly-respected manager Mihailo Petrović to Urawa Reds, ex-first team coach Hajime Moriyasu has not only retained his former boss’s distinctive 3-4-2-1 system upon his return to the Big Arch, but evolved it into a significantly more efficient attacking unit without compromising the defence. Previously the selfless and loyal foil to Japan forward Tadanari Lee, Hisato Sato has been unleashed following the latter’s departure for Southampton to rediscover his devastating touch in front of goal. Ably supported by the likes of Yojiro Takahagi and winter arrival Naoki Ishihara, the 30-year-old has 14 league goals already – six more than his closest rival.

Vegalta, too, have furthered their highly impressive evolution to augment their solid defence with far greater potency at the opposite end – they are already just five goals short of equalling their meagre 39 goals for tally from the whole of 2011. This is largely thanks to the acquisition of Wilson, and not just for the eight league strikes that he has contributed personally. The Brazilian has dovetailed superbly with Shingo Akamine – really the only proper outlet last term – and the work rate of the front two is quite effective at bringing others into play. Kunimitsu Sekiguchi has rediscovered some of his mojo, but not unlike champions Kashiwa Reysol, there are no real stars and coach Makoto Teguramori has been able to mould an excellent team capable of adapting to different opponents.

The only issue now is how long they can both keep it up. Hiroshima have essentially gone injury-free and remained astonishingly reliant on ten of the same starting XI since day one. The situation has not been quite so extreme in Sendai, but injuries to Akamine and Sekiguchi have highlighted a lack of depth and hinted that Vegalta’s notorious issue with streakiness (last season, they went unbeaten (W6 D6) in the first 12, failed to win any (D4 L5) of the next nine, then unbeaten again (W7 D4) in the following 11) may not have gone away. The only real experience either club have with top-flight title races is Sanfrecce’s first stage series win way back in 1994, and the sheer stamina demanded by their unusual tactics could take its toll later on (although their quite understandable disregard for the Yamazaki Nabisco Cup, in contrast to their rivals, will help).

Third-placed Urawa potentially face a similar issue as Petrović has stuck with his 3-4-2-1, and while the likes of Yuki Abe offer great experience and reliability at the back, a misfiring forward line reminds us that this project will require more than one year to reach maturity. Jubilo Iwata, the division’s top scorers, have been hugely impressive in fourth position but their young side is in new territory too.

2. Can last year’s top two pick off the rest?

When I met up with Cesare Polenghi and Sean Carroll for an extended Football Japan Minutecast back in May, we ran out of time before we could even properly mention Kashiwa and Nagoya Grampus – last season’s top two and the popular favourites to challenge for honours this time as well. Though nothing like as headline-makingly awful as Gamba Osaka, both had failed to get out of the blocks in spring and spent the first third of the season languishing in the bottom third of the table.

Happily, Nelsinho Baptista and Dragan Stojković have since been able to revitalise their respective charges quite impressively, once again underlining the competitiveness not only of the clubs in question but of the league as a whole. Of no small concern – and this is a topic for another time – is the further, persuasive evidence that the Asian Champions League (ACL) in its current format is an unwelcome distraction. Reysol began their title defence in woeful style, mustering just eight points (W2 D2 L5) in their opening nine games up to 6 May; after which point the ACL group stage finished and freed the J2-J1 double champions for a near-threefold improvement over the following nine (W7 D1 L1). Over this period, they have closed from fully 15 points off the top to a far more manageable half-dozen. Nagoya’s struggles continued until late May and ACL elimination in the last 16, but they are now unbeaten in six – a run that includes wins over both Kashiwa and Iwata, plus a frustrating draw with Sendai.

Nelsinho has to deal with the problem of replacing the attacking contributions of right-back Hiroki Sakai, now departed for Hannover 96, while Stojković has an unwelcome striking crisis after injuries to Joshua Kennedy and Keiji Tamada were compounded by Olympic duty for the terrifically in-form Kensuke Nagai. If they succeed in overcoming the mid-season hurdles, Kashiwa and Nagoya will be there or thereabouts on final day.

3. Might another challenger emerge from the densely-concentrated chasing pack?

Such is the insane competitiveness of the J. League that it comes as no surprise to seasoned observers that the 11 teams from Urawa in third down to Vissel Kobe in 13th are still only separated by a points margin equivalent to two wins. But having covered the top six in the first two points above, could we yet see a further challenger – or challengers – break out of the pack and have a real go at Hiroshima, Sendai, et al?

It can’t be ruled out, of course, but it is hard to identify a specific candidate. One might argue the best case could be made for FC Tokyo given that they currently lie seventh (eight points off the top), have greatly impressed at times during their J1 return under Ranko Popović, and – like Kashiwa and Nagoya – are now free of their former ACL commitments. But their league record of nine wins, eight losses, and a solitary draw – with a level goal difference – embodies the hot-and-cold nature of their performances. A run of four losses in six since continental elimination and the World Cup qualifying break suggests that this is not about to change.

Below them, Sagan Tosu have overachieved brilliantly in their debut J1 campaign, Yokohama F Marinos and Shimizu S-Pulse should do better but have drooped with chronic impotence in front of goal, while Kawasaki Frontale and Vissel remain frustratingly inconsistent. Kashima Antlers are now surely the most realistic dark horse, having finally found their feet under Jorginho, but even they – like the rest – should be happy with a genuine challenge for ACL qualification. Until they realise it screws up their chances next year.

Drop by for Part 2 and key questions 4-6 tomorrow morning.

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Kashiwa Reysol 1-2 Nagoya Grampus (Ben Mabley’s blackboard, Goal.com Japan)

11 Jul 2012(Wed)

This week’s blackboard article at Goal.com Japan returns to the J. League, and a meeting between its last two champions.


17. Kashiwa Reysol 1-2 Nagoya Grampus (J1 matchday 17, 7 July 2012)

Hiroki Sakai is a fine example of how important the full-backs have become within the tactical makeup over the past decade or so. Finding a replacement to perform the right-back’s defensive duties is straightforward enough, but the real conundrum for coach Nelsinho Baptista now that the erstwhile Kashiwa Reysol starlet has completed his move to Hannover 96 is to compensate for Sakai’s contribution to the attack – in terms of both his overlapping runs and the understanding he had developed on that right-hand flank with Leandro Domingues.

For Saturday’s meeting with Nagoya Grampus, bringing in Wataru Hashimoto and switching Daisuke Nasu to right-back was the easy part. Nelsinho’s big decision was to begin the game with no recognised striker, instead bringing Leandro Domingues into the centre with Masakatsu Sawa, while Koki Mizuno started on the right wing after two assists as a substitute away to Gamba Osaka the previous weekend. Asked about his new partnership afterwards, the Brazilian explained, “I wouldn’t say it’s a zero top, although it’s true that they are not typical strikers. However, we used this system in the last game against Gamba and Sawa scored three goals.”

This was true to a point, but Sawa had started (and scored the first two) at Banpaku as a supporting forward to Masato Kudo, so to deploy a striker-less system from kick-off was a significant step. It was not the same as Spain’s 4-3-3-0, however, as Mizuno and Jorge Wagner provided genuine width while Leandro and Sawa would stay central but frequently drop deep – thereby both effectively serving as false nines.


With the ball, this was reasonably effective. Reysol remained true to their short passing principles, despite the increasingly heavy rain, and their new ‘front’ pair showed a good understanding; taking it in turns to hold up the ball while the other broke forwards from deep to collect. At times (although perhaps not often enough) they could resemble a 4-2-3-1, such as when Sawa worked the ball wide and crossed for Mizuno, coming inside from the opposite wing, in only the third minute. There was also a threat on the counterattack, especially when Marcus Tulio Tanaka had drifted forwards.

The trouble came when not in possession. Nagoya played a much more direct style and were unafraid to lift the ball off the surface, but there was considered method behind this approach. The shape – let’s simplistically call it 4-3-3 – favoured by Dragan Stojković lends itself to two diagonal lines of four: in this case, Tulio to Kensuke Nagai from left to right and Daniel to Mu Kanazaki the other way, with Danilson serving as the common pivot. Grampus were able to utilise the flanks with a range of pinpoint diagonal and cross-field passing, complemented by diagonal runs between the layers, to push the Kashiwa defence backwards.

As they did so, Leandro and Sawa instinctively tended to drop back together, leaving nobody upfield and/or putting pressure on the instigators of Nagoya’s attacks. This allowed the visitors to maintain a high line, and also meant that Reysol had a long distance to cover when possession was reclaimed. (In this sense, one may be tempted to defy Nelsinho and label his system a 4-2-4-0).

Nagoya’s opening goal was mainly all about the individual skills of Nagai and Joshua Kennedy. But it stemmed from a long cross-field pass from Danilson to Kanazaki, who combined on the left flank with both Shohei Abe and Yoshizumi Ogawa, whose diagonal run had attracted the attentions of Akimi Barada and generally dragged Kashiwa to their right. Eight minutes later, Mizuno remained calm under pressure from Abe and Kennedy on the touchline to pick out a fine low pass for Leandro, who beat Tulio and charged forwards to win the corner that brought him the equaliser.


Nelsinho twisted at half time, bringing Kudo on for Mizuno to restore the purer 4-2-3-1 that had started against Gamba – with Sawa asked to attend more closely to Danilson. But after a fast, vertical break along the right flank involving Jungo Fujimoto and Nagai forced a corner from which Nagoya scored their winner, Junya Tanaka was introduced for Sawa. This almost brought them full circle, as Tanaka could naturally push forwards from the centre of the three to form more of a genuine front two with Kudo. But although Reysol were able to push their opponents backwards, their play grew predictable and produced only half-chances. Perhaps this was when the absence of Sakai was felt most keenly.

Thanks to Sean Carroll for providing the quotes from Nelsinho Baptista.

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Rains, trains, and ought-to-have-beens

6 Jul 2012(Fri)

Someone I was speaking with recently brought up the concept of ‘journalistic instinct’, which led me to consider a) exactly what this is and b) to what extent, if any, I actually had one. Having never worked as a reporter per se, the contexts whereby such proclivities are tested within feature writing are a little less immediate and direct. But I suppose that journalistic instinct, in a genuine sense, is really the application of curiosity – almost always a good thing when maintained within legal and moral (?) boundaries – to a given vocation. This may then be augmented by a somewhat less pure variety, the stories and opportunities we simply stumble across; whereby ‘right place, right time’ is either blind luck or a secondary plane of intuition, depending on the argument and/or ego of the journalist in question.

Supporter protests at Gamba Osaka are, unfortunately, no longer a matter of such infrequency that their individual merits should derive much press coverage. Nor do they really serve much tangible purpose. It is, of course, quite understandable that the fans should wish to vent and visibly manifest their fury at their fallen heroes for what may otherwise be seen as a bathetic, rapid transition from freely-scoring title challengers to freely-conceding relegation dalliers over the course of a single close season. Even the club, within that stubbornly Japanese paradigm of consumer rights over unsatisfactory products or services, fully appreciate the justifiability and their own responsibility to respond with contrition.

But then the man with his name on the door (of the biggest office at the clubhouse anyway), Gamba president Kikuo Kanamori, is equally justified in his refusal to send team manager Masanobu Matsunami or the players into the bear pit for any longer than the obligatory, if increasingly onerous post-match bows. This is accepted by the hardcore supporters – Matsunami retains their sympathy due to his legendary status as a former player and the circumstances of his appointment in the wake of
the Serrão/Lopes fiasco. Although relations have normalised to a great degree since the Saitama incident of 2008 and the late-night protests of 2009, the fans’ main beef remains with the board and its role in some pretty catastrophic personnel changes. Hanging around for over two hours after yet another home defeat to shower Kanamori in boos or engage him in discussion over the vulnerability of the back four, however, is really little more than an embodiment of the helplessness that has engulfed the Banpaku stands since March.

I put up with the inclement weather to observe the latest of these protests to their conclusion last Saturday, following the 6-2 shellacking by Kashiwa Reysol, mainly because of the opportunity to chat at length with a couple of senior ultras but in part because of the Euro 2012-induced ‘jet lag’ that dictated that I would not be sleeping until dawn anyway. Kanamori initially sent a messenger to announce that he had no comments to offer, but eventually backed down and came to the stand himself when the ‘call leader’ refused to budge. It was a lengthy and unconstructive – if peaceful – process in which the president could do little more than apologise for the current situation and ask the fans for their continued support. A lot of time could have been saved if everyone had simply acknowledged that Kanamori wasn’t the man to analyse the problems on the pitch, and perhaps if Gamba would show Matsunami’s post-match press conferences on the big screen to at least offer an immediate, footballing perspective.

By sheer coincidence, I got the opportunity to suggest the big screen idea to Kanamori in person (he liked it) shortly afterwards when the late-night train timetables sent me on a different route home to normal, whereupon we happened to bump into one another on an otherwise empty carriage. During the protest, I had retired to a more neutral position towards the back of the stand – the working press having been dismissed, a security guard was suspicious of my presence as a private supporter and the recording capabilities of my phone – but I quickly removed my scarf upon spotting my fellow passenger, lest it be misconceived that I was among those responsible for the grilling he had taken less than an hour previously.

Kanamori shook my hand warmly, as he had when he kindly gave me an hour of his time on the eve of the season to discuss his views on the hardcore supporters for
The Blizzard (the full interview can be found at In Bed With Maradona). Fans often criticise him as conceited, and superficially he can come across as such, but this masks a deep sense of personal responsibility and desire to learn that has been clearly evident since our first meeting two years ago. He wears a jaded expression as he flops back down into his seat but dismisses my suggestion that the extended protests made for a personally tough evening – “That’s all part of the job” – and instead asks my thoughts as to what went wrong in the game itself.

I opined that Matsunami had perhaps jumped the gun with his attacking changes at half-time, just as he had with a defensive switch when Gamba had pulled it back to 2-2 against Nagoya Grampus three days previously. “Ah… so an inexperience thing.” Clearly, the need to promote a rookie manager after the start of the season was never part of the plan for Kanamori, who has always seen the long-term relationship between Manchester United and Sir Alex Ferguson as the ultimate ideal. Indeed, the lack of Ferguson-like ruthlessness shown by Akira Nishino in remaining overly loyal to an aging squad and coaching staff was a key factor in prompting Gamba to approach Wagner Lopes as a potential successor last year. It is a source of palpable regret to Kanamori, however, that they did not cut their losses and search elsewhere when Lopes was vetoed by the J. League for his lack of coaching qualifications in December.

Either way, the ensuing results have not been acceptable, and though performances have improved under Matsunami – at times considerably – confidence is such a fragile on-off switch that it only takes one moment of inspiration or (more likely) a mistake to trigger a decisively immediate reversal of momentum, as evidenced by the comebacks on both sides of recent Gamba matches. It is refreshing to learn that Kanamori is highly realistic about the prospects of relegation, and one hopes that this stance is reflected on the playing side so as not to repeat the mistake of FC Tokyo, in 2010, of only realising they were not too good to go down once their place in J2 was virtually confirmed. Much hope is inevitably pinned upon the imminent return of Leandro, who netted 22 goals in 29 appearances during an all-too-brief stint at Banpaku back in 2009, but his is likely to be the only mid-season arrival unless Gamba can finally find a solution to their long-standing goalkeeping problem.

One senses that our explicitly on-the-record discussions would have taken on a different tone had that interview taken place now rather than in March, when Kanamori was brimming with excitement over the future and his own baby, the new stadium. Corporate donations and public grants will cover the majority of the 14 billion yen construction costs, with the remaining two billion yen being raised through private donations from supporters. But two and a half months into the year-long fundraising campaign, only 46 million yen (2.3% of the final target) has been collected thus far. I decided not to make the president’s night any worse by dwelling on the topic for too long before we parted in Umeda, but the disastrous playing results have undoubtedly done little to inspire fans to open their wallets.

So, what have we learned? Well, perhaps that post-match protests might actually be more effective when there is a little more ambiguity to the situation; highlighting an intolerance to mild mid-table underachievement that might have gone unnoticed rather than crying over milk that isn’t so much spilt as a big white pool of broken glass, plastic crates, and bits of battery electric vehicle at the bottom of a cul-de-sac. But aside from that, I’m still a little unsure about the extent to which the preceding paragraphs actually comprise a story and, by extension, evidence either way about my journalistic instincts. Maybe we should just conclude with the assertion that I am, after all, no different to anyone else who visits Banpaku regularly; and thus my very writing is now just another symbol of that confused, yet familiar sense of helplessness one tends to experience at full time.

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Blackboard Euro 2012 final special – Spain 4-0 Italy

4 Jul 2012(Wed)

The last of my Japanese-language Euro 2012 tactical commentaries at Goal.com focuses, unsurprisingly, on last Sunday’s final. An English-language version can be found below.


16. Euro 2012 special: Final – Spain 4-0 Italy

The final of Euro 2012 brought a nice symmetry to the competition, both in terms of the repeated matchup and of tactical interest. Spain and Italy were, after all, the two sides that had adopted the most strikingly unique starting formations back in the group stage – a 4-3-3 with false nine and a 3-5-2, respectively – but it didn’t end there. They were also the two sides to have successfully implemented a significant change to their systems during the tournament (albeit subtly in Spain’s case), and the two that had caused their opponents to reconsider their own tactical approach in order to try and handle them.

Michael Cox of Zonal Marking points out, it is slightly ironic that this has been so given that neither of the two managers are renowned tacticians; each preferring instead to emphasise their duties in ensuring that the players are happy and comfortable. Cesare Prandelli claimed that his return to 4-3-1-2 – another fairly idiosyncratic Serie A system of recent years – was simply a result of his charges having “rediscovered their certainty”. Italy’s initial 3-5-2 was both tiring to maintain and relatively straightforward for opposing managers to respond to, as we saw on the blackboard a fortnight ago. But even then, the timing of the switch was somewhat counterintuitive, at least theoretically. Giovanni Trappatoni’s rather basic 4-4-2 made the Republic of Ireland the one team against which the 3-5-2 would gain a natural advantage; as it was, Italy lacked bite and could easily have gone out at the first hurdle.

However, magnificent performances against England and, in particular, Germany dictated that there was little cause for Prandelli to restore the back three for the final. Whereas the battle of formations in that opening group game in Gdańsk had created two sets of three-on-threes with Italy enjoying superiority on the flanks, now the Azzurri could hope for numerical supremacy in the centre. This was because the narrowness of their interchanging midfield diamond essentially pitted all four players (Andrea Pirlo, Daniele de Rossi, Claudio Marchisio, Riccardo Montolivo) against Spain’s three (Sergio Busquets, Xabi Alonso, Xavi).


The Spanish countered this possibility with another new nuance to their 4-3-3-0 system, which partly resembled and partly contrasted with the second half adjustments that had worked three weeks previously. Xavi stayed high up the field to press the Italian danger man Pirlo, while both Andrés Iniesta and David Silva came right inside to help out. In effect, this increasingly meant that Vicente del Bosque’s team had five central midfielders and thus Italy’s conceivable advantage was lost.

All the above boiled down to two key battle zones: a highly congested midfield area in front of Pirlo, and the relatively wide open spaces for the full-backs to exploit. Italy actually played rather well, adopting a welcome, positive approach and utilising that midfield diamond to keep the possession statistics at virtually 50-50 throughout the first half – unheard of against Spain – while completing 202 passes to their opponents’ 234. But their problems came because of the sublime Spanish movement, both with and without the ball; demonstrating speed and energy levels hitherto unseen this summer.

Prandelli’s men were forced backwards, with much of their possession and passing taking place on the edge of their own penalty area. Crucially, Pirlo was starved of opportunities for telling diagonal passes and instead had to play short to De Rossi. Although Italy did muster eight attempts on goal in the first half – the same number as Spain – the lack of time spent in enemy territory meant that Mario Balotelli and Antonio Cassano had little chance to pull the Spanish centre-backs out of position and thus distract the full-backs.

Spain exploited this to win both key battles. Cesc Fàbregas remained unusually high up the field in more of a genuine striker’s position – a false false nine (?!) – but only registered a single shot (off target) as his greater influence was on rapid build-up play in the final third. Most notably, of course, he burst onto a pinpoint Iniesta pass to cut back brilliantly for Silva to head the opener. Italy occasionally threatened in wide areas but Álvaro Arbeloa and particularly Jordi Alba enjoyed the greater freedom to do so. The latter’s combination with Xavi for the second goal finally – and spectacularly – proved that Spain could complement the tiki-taka with explosiveness and penetration.

There are ways of playing with ten men, but not when 2-0 down against the greatest international ball-keepers of all time, and Prandelli was unlucky that his gamble in filling the substitutions quota so early should fail so decisively with the injury to Thiago Motta. This ended the game as a contest, but the crowning performance of Spain’s era of domination should not be overshadowed. ¡Enhorabuena España!

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