KIEV (Reuters) - The greatest teams always peak at exactly the right time and Spain, giving an emphatic response to those critics who say their mesmerising possession football is dull, saved their scintillating best for last at Euro 2012.
Vicente del Bosque’s side had struggled to get their fast-flowing game into top gear earlier in the tournament but it all clicked beautifully into place against Italy in Sunday’s final in Kiev.
Some had labelled the Spanish dull after a couple of uninspired performances in Poland and Ukraine but their crushing 4-0 win at the Olympic Stadium was the biggest margin of victory in any World Cup or European Championship final.
Spain took the game to the Italians from the start and there was a zip about their passing, with Andres Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas and David Silva buzzing around the opposition defence, to immediately get the the upper hand.
With defensive midfielders Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets providing the foundation, Xavi was able to dictate from the central areas, feeding the runs of both the forwards and the fullbacks up the flanks.
Del Bosque had again opted to play without a recognised striker, with midfielder Fabregas in a roving forward role, and it was his burst into the box and clever cut back that set up Silva to nod in Spain’s opener.
The Spanish players looked far hungrier than their opponents, running into space and overlapping down the wings and creating a host of clear chances, while the Italians threatened only from long-range or set pieces.
It was one such forward foray that led to Spain’s second.
The goal came not from a trademark move of 20 passes or more but from a long Iker Casillas clearance that Fabregas leaped to nod back to Jordi Alba.
The 23-year-old, one of the revelations of the tournament who is poised to join Barcelona from Valencia, laid the ball inside to Xavi and sped past a static Italian defence to receive a return pass that he slotted calmly past Gianluigi Buffon.
Xavi admitted before the game he had not been at his best in recent outings but he was back to something close to that on Sunday and sent substitute Fernando Torres clear to score Spain’s third in the 84th minute.
The Barca playmaker, who has been at the heart of Spain’s success over the past four years, is the first player to provide assists in two European Championship finals after he played Torres in to score the only goal in the Euro 2008 final against Germany.
But it has not been merely their dominance in midfield and their attacking threat that has underpinned Spain’s success.
The defence, marshalled by Gerard Pique and Sergio Ramos in the centre and with captain Casillas almost unbeatable in goal, was again rock solid on Sunday.
Spain have not conceded a goal in their last five Euro matches, a new competition record, and have kept a clean sheet in their last 10 knockout matches at a European Championship or World Cup.
Casillas, who became the first player to notch up 100 international victories on his 137th appearance, has not conceded a goal in the knockout stage of the two competitions for 990 minutes.
But it is Del Bosque to whom Spain’s victory on Sunday truly belongs.
The sometimes gruff but unfailingly respectful 61-year-old built on the triumph of Euro 2008 and has turned Spain into a harmonious and incredibly effective unit that has taken its place at the summit of world football, smashing records along the way.
He becomes only the second coach to win a European Championship and a World Cup title after German Helmut Schoen achieved the feat in the 1970s.
With a relatively young squad who have shown that success does not dim their hunger, few would bet against them retaining their world title in Brazil in two years’ time.
editing by Justin Palmer