First to the full disclosure. This column is a gigantic fan of Spanish soccer. Except for a hard to explain, forlorn love for Sunderland, the sometimes Premiership English club, the Spanish La Liga takes precedence in terms of weekend soccer on this column's TV. They just make it look so pretty, don't they? Barcelona, Real Madrid, Athletic Bilbao and even Raya Vallecano. They play the beautiful game like the beautiful game should be played. Beautifully.
We could babble on about how much respect we have for the Spanish game, but as always, money talks. If someone handed this column one million euros, dollars or pounds sterling and said, 'You can have this, but you have to bet it on who is going to win the European Championships' basically, it would be going on the Italians.
In many of the great sports we love, it is crucial to be 'strong up the middle'. For example, in baseball you need a good catcher, pitcher, short-stop and center fielder to be a decent club. Italy are like a rock up the middle. Buffon, their goalkeeper, is playing better than any other net minder in the world right now. He has kept Italy in some games, providing a calming, veteran experience that other teams just don't have. He has completely dominated at time. For goodness sake, the guy has the cosmopolitan confidence to keep his hair out of his eyes with feminine bobby-pins! The Italian center backs, Balzaretti and Barzagli, may sound like sports cars, but they are absolute rocks at the heart of the Italian defence. Their tackling, heading and overall decision making has been simply superb.
Then there is Andrea Pirlo in the middle of the park. Pirlo is hands down the best player of the tournament at this point, bar none. He has completely bossed the two most recent Italian games, against Germany and also England, and his unbelievably cheeky penalty
in the latter match quite literally changed the tide of momentum within same.
Then there is Super Mario. Balotelli is every coaches worst nightmare. There is quite literally no way of telling which Mario will turn up, Super Mario, or Mario the monster. Luckily for Italy, in this tournament, it has more often been the former. He scored an absolute belter against Ireland, and then tonight scored two crackers against Germany for good measure. If he keeps this up he may actually challenge Pirlo for the player of the tournament title.
Apart from being strong up the middle, Italy have an undeniable air of destiny hovering over them like an angel guiding them to their destiny. Before this tournament started legions of sports writers wrote them off, largely because there are serious accusations against some of the peripheral players in the Italian squads of gambling on soccer. Those investigations are ongoing, and the common thought was that this stress and tension would rip Italy apart from the inside.
So much for that theory.
Finally, there is the Hunt For Red October factor. In the oddly watchable and re-watchable movie, Hunt For, a Russian submarine commander sinks his own submarine because of a ridiculous set of orders that backfire horribly. His exasperated second in command, as the torpedo homes in on their boat, whines, 'Kommandant, your arrogance has got us all killed!'. Well the Spanish manager Vicente del Bosque is the Russian submarine commander of the good ship Espana. He is quite literally tempting fate with some audacious, head scratching tactical decisions, including playing without a striker on multiple occasions. Now, say what you want about Fernando Torres and his abysmal lack of form, but the 'other' Fernando, Llorente, is a man on fire this season, and yet the magnificent Athletic Bilbao striker rots on the Spanish bench like out of data tapas.Vicente
del Bosque isn't as much tempting fate as he is pulling down his pants to moon it full on. Should he dare to face the Italians without a striker, we may be in for an absolute stinker of a match as the tiny Spanish midfielders run around in pointless circles like five tiny ants trying to scale the walls of a medieval castle.
The Spanish manager, and his team, have been basically begging to be beaten all tournament long. They squeaked through against Portugal on penalties, and apart from a serious shallacking of hapless Ireland, have not looked like the greatest team in the world. Instead they have looked like a collection of the greatest players in the world forced into unusual systems that haven't fully come off.
Italy are currently 14/5 to beat Spain on Sunday night. Perhaps a better bet is the 6/4 the Italians lifting the trophy. Can't you just see Italy scraping past the Spanish in a dramatic penalty shoot-out, Buffon making a couple of dramatic saves on route to destiny?
Just remember, you heard it here first.