Ross Highfield picks the eleven players who he believes shone at the recent tournament in Poland and Ukraine where Spain once again proved triumphant in the final:
There are many goalkeepers in the world who would envy Iker Casillas. The Spain and Real Madrid goalkeeper has won Spanish league titles, Champions Leagues, a World Cup and now two European Championships, usually whilst playing behind many of the world’s finest footballers. But the Spain side that conceded just once in six Euro 2012 matches was not an attacking juggernaut throughout; in the group stage, a number of fine saves against Croatia prevented an early Spanish exit, and his role in the semi-final against Portugal was as pivotal. There were also moments when Italy threatened to get back into Sunday’s final, with the score at 1-0 and 2-0, but San Iker, at his imperious, intimidating best, was not to be beaten.
The break-out star of this year’s tournament, Alba’s impending move to Barcelona will come as no surprise to anyone who saw just one of his marauding runs down Spain’s left. His goal in the final was the result of pace and drive that nobody in the Italian team could match and it was fitting that he should score the goal that effectively ended the contest.
As in every tournament since World Cup 2006, Lahm once again proved himself to be the world’s best full-back.
It was a season of ‘almosts’ for Pepe, who was eliminated in the semi-finals of both the Champions League and European Championships in two cruel penalty shootouts. His own performances at Euro 2012, though, were most often complete defensive masterclasses. Portugal were the only team to prevent Spain from scoring, and in a side playing two former wingers as full-backs, much credit must go to both centre-halves and particularly Pepe.
Carles Puyol’s injury meant that Ramos - for the previous two tournaments Spain’s right-back - was moved into the centre-half position he plays in at club level. It did not stop him from getting forward, proving a potent threat against both Portugal and Italy. But it was his role in extending Spain’s incredible run when it matters most – they have not conceded a goal in knock-out matches since 2006 – that cemented his place here.
It is odd that a 33-year-old who has won two Champions Leagues and was man-of-the-match in a World Cup final six years ago suddenly made so many headlines at this tournament. Yet Pirlo’s superb performances against Germany and England were most surprising in coming a year after his release from AC Milan, the club where he made his name. His career at the top level had looked over, but he laughed in the face of such an assessment, providing many of the competition’s classiest moments. He is not the quickest – he never was – and yet he seemingly always has time. A true great.
Qualifying for the tournament via the play-offs and emerging from a group containing both Germany and the Netherlands, Portugal, in spite of their obvious talent, must go down as the tournament’s surprise package. Ronaldo shone brightly but briefly, but it was Moutinho’s work in the middle of the pitch that dictated the team’s play.
For so long, Germany were so impressive, winning every match convincingly until the semi-final. When it really counted, many of the marquee names disappointed – Bastian Schweinsteiger, Lukas Podolski and Mario Gomez amongst others – but Khedira was a tireless worker throughout, who also found himself in many advanced positions, most notably against Greece, where he calmed German nerves with a thundering volley to restore the German advantage.
Spain played much of Euro 2012 with a 4-6-0 formation, but with the excellent running of David Silva and Cesc Fabregas, who needs strikers? Fabregas was often brilliant, yet Silva, scorer of the goal that got the ball rolling in the final, was the tournament’s most effective attacker. Two goals and three assists later, it is easy to see why Manchester City are desperately trying to price Real Madrid out of a bid.
Andres Iniesta is still only 28. He was man-of-the-match twice in each of Spain’s two previous tournament wins, and thrice in Euro 2012, including in the final. He is the heartbeat of all that Spain and Barcelona do.
Wasteful in the opening match, dropped for the third, anonymous in the final. Mario Balotelli is world football’s greatest enigma, the ultimate all-or-nothing player. Yet when he is good, he is a phenomenon. Whilst Fernando Torres and Mario Gomez also scored three in the tournament, none of Torres’s goals were vital, whilst Gomez went quiet when the going got tough. Balotelli? He struck both goals in a semi-final that Italy were meant to lose, the second possibly the goal of the tournament. He answered the racist chants in the best way: with his feet.