The Italian Game-Plan: Who's to Blame?
By Nicholas Spiller
Soccer can truly be a cruel sport at any level of play. Referees are often the center of controversial moments, such as unjust red cards and penalty kicks or failing to notice a blatant offsides call. Fans and managers have felt blighted by goals not given, and countless calls have been made for goal line technology that would rid the sport of some of the injustice.
Italy was dealt a similar blow in the EURO 2012 final against Spain. Due to using their three allotted substitutions early in the match, when Thiago Motta had to be stretchered off the pitch, Italy was reduced to 10 men and their hopes of a comeback from 2-0 down were demolished.
For manager Cesare Prandelli the situation was a nightmare. All the Italians could do was sit back and watch Spain dismantle them for another twenty minutes with two more goals to seal an all around beating of 4-0. Thiago Motta was on the pitch for less than five minutes before his hamstring gave away and he collapsed to the turf. Not quite the impact sub Prandelli had hoped for!
Although we can blame Prandelli for not being wiser with his substitutes, I find it hard to do so and I feel there is a grave error in the fixtures schedule at the tournament. Italy played their semifinal match against Germany on Thursday, while Spain played Portugal on Wednesday. The difference between two days of rest and three days is monumental. Yes, Spain did have to play overtime so that sort of balances the struggle, but there is no doubt in my mind that fatigue played a factor in Italy’s failure.
For most players, major tournaments like EURO 2012 or World Cups come after a strenuous season that begins in August. Players accumulate nearly 50 matches, and international stars play even more. Whenever there is a club break for international games, they represent their country in friendlies and qualifiers. There is no break. So when the final of a tournament comes around, and these players have endured five straight matches under the ultimate of pressure cookers following roughly 60 matches since August, and there’s only two days of rest before the final, why is anyone surprised that injuries ruin the match?
Motta was Italy’s second player to be hurt. Defender Giorgio Chiellini had hobbled off after only 20 minutes of play. Prandelli then used his second substitution to bring on striker Antonio Di Natale at half time. It was a logical move considering Italy was already down 2-0 and Di Natale had scored against Spain during their match in the group stage. So, two subs had already been used.
The Thiago Motta substitution was questionable and reeked of desperation. Motta had been carrying a hamstring concern during the whole tournament, so bringing him on was a complete gamble. Clearly the game was getting away, and Prandelli was desperate to bring the Italian midfield up a notch, but the move backfired completely. Thus Italy’s slim hopes were derailed by two injuries, and they had to finish the game a man down.
The Italian manager has to take the majority of blame here. There was a high risk Motta could injure his hamstring again or their keeper or anyone else could have gotten hurt. He knew then they'd have to play with 10 men against the possession kings of the world, Spain. Knowing the concerns of fatigue, Prandelli should have saved his last sub for more like ten minutes left in the match. Prandelli was perhaps one of the best managers of the Euro tournament, but he blew it with this early substitution, though his hands were tied in large part from Spain's dominance and 2-0 lead. He must have felt like he had to do something to try to change the game.
And I’m not arguing that Spain didn’t deserve this victory; they are clearly the best team in the world. But, I do feel that UEFA’s schedule did not give Italy a fair chance in this match. The difference between two and three days of rest is 50%. All athletes know that the second day after an event is when you feel most sore. The third day is when you feel your body recovering. By day four you are ready to exercise again. Spain was rested. Italy was recovering. They suffered injuries and they lost.
Let us hope that future tournaments will prevent this sort of match by giving teams at least three days of rest before an international final.
Nicholas Spiller is a freelance soccer writer and can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.