Early Doors

Who would bet against Italy now?

Early Doors

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Andrea Pirlo and Xavi get to renew hostilities in the final (Reuters)

He's the same age as Danny Welbeck, a year younger than Theo Walcott and Andy Carroll, five years younger than Wayne Rooney and Ashley Young, seven younger than Robin van Persie: you have to say that Mario Balotelli has some potential.

His performance yesterday against the Germans was simply breath-taking. And that was just his guerrilla marketing, stripping off his shirt in celebration of his second goal to reveal  the three stripes of Adidas adhered to his rather impressive torso.

With those two goals of stunning facility, those who have been promoting the Italian as the greatest thing to emerge from the country since parmesan cheese (look away now Jose Mourinho) were vindicated. Those who doubted he would ever match his self-worth were proven wrong. While those who watched him every other week at the Etihad Stadium merely purred at what lies ahead. They knew he had it in him all along.

And with that match-winning display, he altered the dynamic of this superb Euro competition. There were many people — including me — who thought that the Germans were the side to back. Their mix of power and skill seemed impregnable. They were going to win it, and thus end 16 years of hurt since they last picked up a trophy. Surely, it was theirs to lose.

But then we didn't realise they would enter into a semi final with their own unexpected twist on Spain's no centre-forward formation, by playing without centre-backs. Boy, was their defence woeful. There was a hint when Greece scored twice against them that they might be vulnerable at the back. After all, no defence worth such a description leaks a goal to Giorgios Samaras. But nobody expected that sort of League One back-tracking.

And what Italy did was to back up Balotelli's genius at exploiting weakness by ensuring Germany's powerful forward play was negated. Try as the Germans did, once they had fallen behind they simply could not outwit the blue ranks. The weight of history ultimately seemed to make them crumble. Never have they beaten the Italians in a competitive match: and there were we English thinking the Germans had the same psychological hold over everyone else they have over us.

So it is the Italians who move on, offering magnificent riposte to those who suggest scandal and corruption gnaws at their footballing soul. At every stage in this tournament people assumed Italy had reached the limit of their possibility. There were plenty (including the entire BBC pundit panel) who thought they weren't good enough to beat England. No one (including me) saw them past Germany. Now they meet Spain. Who would dare suggest they can't do it now?

Mind, one thing we have lost with Germany is the possibility of an open final. What we will get on Sunday is a game cagier than a John Cage symphony, with Nicholas Cage guesting on timpani, performed in a cage. Or rather, given that it is unlikely to feature much in the way of drumbeats, triangle.

But it will offer up a fascinating contrast in paths. Spain have arrived at the final on the most prodigious ability to keep the ball (plus doing the sensible thing and making sure their best penalty takers actually took a penalty). Opponents simply don't have control long enough to carve an opening. That is the reason they have the best defence stats in the tournament: it is hard to threaten unless you have the ball.

They have barely needed a forward, preferring to keep tactical fetishists purring with their false nine. Fernando Torres, the man who won them the Euro title four years ago, is unlikely to make a starting appearance in the final then.

Italy have done it very differently. Good defence, a good keeper and a man who can control the game are married to the most mercurial forward talent, a bloke capable of scoring out of nothing. You just wonder what would have happened had Balotelli been available to play for Spain. Would they have selected him? Would they have worried he might disrupt the intricacies with his absolute unpredictability? We will never know. We are just lucky someone trusts him sufficiently to let him entertain us.

Gordon Strachan, speaking on the ITV highlights show, said of the City player's performance against Germany: "He is now the player he has always thought he is." That might be a touch premature. Sunday night is the tantalising stage on which he might give us a view of how he can be even better.

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