I’ve been building up to the start of Euro 2008 for two weeks now, providing you with a one-stop-shop of sorts with final rosters for each of the 16 nations involved, previews of each nation and group, and my predictions for the quarterfinals and beyond.
Every tournament has a winner, obviously, and we’re at that stage in my pre-competition coverage. It has all come down to Portugal and Italy for the right to be the European champion for the next four years.
Final (June 29, 2:45 PM; Ernst Happel Stadion, Vienna):
This game pits the team with the best player in the world against one of, if not the most, the most organized, disciplined nations in the world.
Portugal and Italy, respectively, play differing styles of soccer; Portugal is dynamic on the wings and is very good on the counter-attack, and Italy prefers to dominate possession and dictate the pace of the game.
Taking the leadership and intangible factors out of the equation, the absence of Fabio Cannavaro wouldn’t hurt Italy against Portugal. As I’ve discussed earlier, Portugal doesn’t have terribly much talent in the center forward position and tend to play a lone man up front anyway. Two solid center backs (Materazzi and Barzagli) should be able to shut down Nuno Gomes, or possibly either Hélder Postiga or Hugo Almeida, without a lot of trouble.
Italy’s full-backs, Gianluca Zambrotta and most likely Christian Panucci, will have trouble with the pace and creativity of Cristiano Ronaldo and Simão, the two wingers in Portugal’s 4-3-3/4-5-1 formation. At 35 years of age, I don’t think Panucci can stick with either of those two, and the attack-minded Zambrotta is susceptible to being caught out of position on a trademark Portuguese counter-attack.
There is no question that Ronaldo and Simão would have to play well in this game and really be the catalysts from their wide positions, because the middle of the field would be an absolute bloodbath. The combination of Gattuso, Pirlo, and De Rossi for Italy and Deco, Veloso, and Petit for Portugal in or around the center circle has tough tackling, late challenges, and epic battles for 50-50 balls written all over it. It would not be for the faint of heart, but is absolutely worth watching and could very well be where this game is won and lost. The advantage has to go to Italy in this matchup; their trio is more experienced and has a more complete array of skills to use on the field, but Deco is probably the best individual player out of the six and can single-handedly swing a game in his country’s favor if he’s on his game.
Luca Toni has played for 10 clubs in his career and just turned 31, but he is a fantastic striker with a goal-to-game ratio of just over 1:2 both domestically and internationally. At 6’4″, he has a significant size advantage over Ricardo Carvalho, who is a shut down center back and would likely have the assignment of sticking to Toni like glue. Carvalho is no slouch in the air and while the fact that Italy doesn’t rely much on wing play and crosses into the area helps the Chelsea defender, he’s still going to have to find a way to deal with the bigger, more powerful Toni. He has a unique skill set compared to the strikers Carvalho sees on a weekly basis in the Premier League, so that matchup will definitely be something to keep your eyes on.
Italy has the better goalkeeper in Gianluigi Buffon, although he battled a bit of a back problem with Juventus in Serie A this season which could effect his ability to dive and move side-to-side. Ricardo is a fine goalie in his own right and has great reflexes, but has struggled in the past with claiming balls out of the air. One mistake on a corner kick or a free kick, one mis-timed leap to punch the ball to safety, and big, tall Luca Toni will put it in the back of the net.
It all comes down to tempo. If Portugal is able to play their counter-attack brand of game and exploit their advantage on the wings, they’ll have a chance to pull off the upset. Italy needs to slow the game down to suit their style and possess the ball in their midfield while looking for holes and weaknesses in the Portuguese back line. You’ll see a high number of fouls and cards in this game as both nations have multiple players who won’t hesitate to chop their opponents down if necessary, and emotions obviously will be running high in a final.
Prediction: Italy-2, Portugal-1