James Lawton: La Roja reassert their claims to walk among the game's greatest


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The Independent Online

A football empire has maybe never before struck back with such brilliant authority to claim a unique place in the history of the game. Spain not only destroyed the formidable threat of a revived Italy, they made a mockery of the suggestion that as the leaders of the world game they had become time-expired.

Here last night they completed their straight hat-trick of two European titles with the World Cup set in the middle that will be remembered not only for the remorseless brilliance of Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez but also the courage of a team who refused to forget who they were – and quite what they represented.

It was not the final that had stimulated so much of the football imagination from more or less the moment Spain won their second straight major title in Johannesburg two years ago. But it did have the man who had made such nonsense of the idea that only the young, bounding Germany had a serious chance of denying the reigning world and European champions a unique place in the history of the game. Andrea Pirlo, at 33, had not only been the star of the show coming into the game, he had also announced — in Italy's opening group game against Spain — that he was also best equipped to break the dynasty of La Roja.

It was an idea that would not be rejected but simply ravaged soon enough. However, the extent of the Spanish triumph, its depth of brilliance, can maybe be best defined by the scale of the challenge they were supposed to face.

Spain, after all, did not come here trailing the glory that would so quickly be lighting up the Ukrainian sky.

Xavi , one of the Italian's few potential superiors in the business of shaping and dominating a match was withdrawn from the semi-final against Portugal in a state of some weary bemusement. Twenty-four hours later Pirlo was systematically shredding all that German hauteur. Balotelli exploded the bombs. Pirlo designed them and put them in place.

He had also undermined the Spanish defence in that first game, sending half of it the wrong way as deftly as a matador making a pass and playing in Antonio Di Natale for the sweetest of strikes.

In Germany recriminations over coach Joachim Low's decision to pick his team largely with the threat of Pirlo in mind will be running for some time. Here last night the sublime wrecker was playing for the highest stakes in modern football.

Pirlo, it seemed, was not only attempting to beat Spain but re-assert some old truths of the game. The trouble was that La Roja had a few ambitions of their own and one of them was to declare that they indeed had a claim on being one of the greatest, if not the greatest, teams in football history.

They could hardly have done it more bitingly, more exquisitely than with the two first half goals that made Pirlo's assignment seem not so much a long shot as an extraordinary impertinence.

First David Silva, then Jordi Alba ransacked the Italian self-belief. They were the kind of goals that announced the dawn of the Spanish empire in Vienna in 2008 when they won the European title with football so rhythmic, so uplifting it might have been Mozart.

One theory coming in here was that the Spanish game, so unanswerable in that first eruption four years ago and preserved in the World Cup by the superb finishing of David Silva, had turned in on itself. It had become passing almost for its own sake, a vanity unsupported by the hard edge of a true finisher with the injury to Villa and the decline of Fernando Torres.

Spain believed they were so good that they could do without an orthodox striker, they could throw in the former creator-in-chief at Arsenal's Cesc Fabregas. It may have smacked of sacrilege when coach Vicente del Bosque made the announcement but last night the sceptical were thrust into the same kind of retreat imposed on the Azzurri.

Fabregas played beautifully to set up Silva's 15th minute headed goal after receiving a pass from Andres Iniesta that was just about guaranteed to tear the heart of any defence. Fabregas quite effortlessly went by Georgio Chiellini, who would soon disappear with a combination of injury and maybe a touch of despair, before turning in the cross for Villa.

Just to underline the point, Spain stepped more closely to their place in history with a second goal, from their left back Jordi Alba. Alba, though, is only a defender in the most fleeting way. His purpose is to spread devastation and here he did it perfectly, producing a quick pass to Xavi and returning on to the return pass to score with a certainty that landed cruelly on Italian spirt.

The Italian dream will just have to re-create at some point in the future when the Spanish may have just have tired of the demands of their relentless and, on this occasion, quite unplayable football.