Thus far, the games of the European Championship have been contested in an exciting manner, but have, in general, contained at least one side espousing defensive austerity. In stark contrast to this prevailing ethos was the game contested by Italy and Spain. Both nations luxuriate in a proud and rich footballing tradition, and, it would appear, both have arrived in Poland & Ukraine with a stated aim of honouring such codes. On a long and sticky Gdansk pitch, dynamism experienced a dual revival.
Much was made, post-match, about the tactical tinkering of Vicente Del Bosque and Cesare Prandelli, forthright coaches both. In a manifestation of tactical experimentation, both settled on cosmic amalgamations of style. The Italian's deployed Daniele De Rossi, Roma's sensational midfield force, in a feint, fading sweeper position, semi-permanent marshal of a dynamic back three. In the opposing dugout, Del Bosque similarly created something new. Adhering to the Barcelona model, Spain, in this match at least, would play without a legitimate, recognized and certifiable striker. Billed by many as the battle of the "false" number five and the "false" number nine, this was an absorbing encounter regardless of systematic posturing.
Spain were fantastic. This generation expects, and seemingly always receives, as much. Flashes of the sprawling, suffocating and sublime tiki-taka play became most evident, worked and woven throughout bouts of well-maintained and developed possession. Aided by a midfield axis unparallelled in this era, the Spaniards, as is their propensity, dominated the ball. With intricate and complex passes, with shimmies and fakes and turns, Spain were easy on the eye, making, as they so regularly do, the game look easy. However, despite all of the talk, discussion and conjecture, their opponents weren't too bad themselves.
Italy counteracted the Spanish style with a verve and swagger. Rarely, if ever, have a European team played with such forthright arrogance and confidence against the current Spanish incarnation. Copying to good effect the model conceived by South American nations, Italy, as they are wont to do under the positivism of Prandelli, played their own game. This was a refreshing and exciting revelation which, in many ways, ignited this current European Championship.
The genius of Iniesta, so assured and magnetic on the ball, was combated with the solidarity and confidence of Thiago Motta. The flicking and probing of David Silva, so irresistible and balanced, was offset by the timeless pertinence of Andrea Pirlo. The style of Spain was equaled by the style of Italy. Two teams throwing off the shackles of convention; a joy to behold.
The most finely poised game of the Championship thus far contained, for pleasing symmetry, the most aesthetically-pleasing goal of the Championship thus far, also. In a game awash with midfielders established in the extreme upper echelon of World Class, it was Andrea Pirlo, Old Reliable, who stood out. Only a player of such renowned, of such class, of such unwavering ability could lay claim to the accolade of "pass of the day," in a game harbouring not only Xavi and Iniesta, but Fabregas, Alonso and Busquets. Only Pirlo. With a shimmy and a dart, a swing of the hips for exuberance, Pirlo drove through the densely-populated Spanish midfield. Once confronted by a defender, Pirlo unfurled with stunning beauty a threaded ball immaculate and beautiful in every way. Timed to utter perfection was the run of Antonio Di Natale, snaking through the duo of Ramos and Pique. With a cold-veined confidence, his was the finish of a poacher, lofted and swerved around an advancing and sprawling Casillas into the far corner. A goal breath-taking in simplicity and technique both.
Like true champions, though, Spain responded. Giving credence further to the notion that this is an Italy incongruous with the stylistic proclivity of their history was the way in which they leaked the definitive equaliser. When a team contains such players of resounding ability, it really does only take a second to score a goal. One snappy, sensational Silva pass. One ferocious, fabulous Fabregas run. One-one.
When finally Del Bosque did relent and implement a discernible striker into the fray, it was not, as he hoped, Fernando Torres. It was, as is becoming customary, the shadowy, hesitant silhouette of Fernando Torres so common in recent times. His was a performance of good positioning, of gallant running, of effort. Also, it was a performance of hesitancy in front of goal; the very phenomenon which has, for the best part of eighteen months, robbed Torres of his trademark potency. Several chances, once created by the churning and mesmeric Spanish midfield, were spurned.
But any such winning goal would have been cruel on Italy. For vast periods of the game, they were the side of relevance. A fair result was posted in Gdansk, one-one the outcome of two national sides playing with a fervent expression and identity. Thus, in the modern reign of stoical defensive resistance and tactical austerity, dynamism reared its head in Group C's opening game. For Spain and Italy both, and for the footballing fandom of Europe, this was a refreshing renewal.