KIEV: Being voted man of the match in a Euro 2012 semi-final when a team mate has scored two superb goals in a 2-1 victory is some indication of the all-powerful influence Andrea Pirlo has on Italy at the moment.
Mario Balotelli grabbed the headlines in the semi-final win over Germany, but not all the glory, as Pirlo’s relentless probing and promptings were recognized with his third individual award of the tournament.
He also scooped the award after a commanding performance in the quarter-final, where his audacious chipped penalty helped Italy to their shootout win over England after a goalless 120 minutes.
Another came after the 1-1 draw with Croatia in the group stage, where he produced something of a rarity in big tournaments these days – a goal direct from a free kick.
All this should not come as any surprise to anyone who has followed Pirlo’s career as he has been ranked alongside some of the greats of the game and has the trophy cabinet to prove it with winners’ medals from the World Cup, Champions League and Italian domestic competitions competing for space.
But after missing most of Italy’s ill-starred 2010 World Cup campaign through injury and now 33, it feels as if he has returned to the stage after a sabbatical.
Of course he has never really been away, and though AC Milan decided last year he was past his best, Pirlo proved such thoughts to be premature as he inspired Juventus to the Serie A title.
He has carried that form into the European Championship, kicking off with an excellent display in the 1-1 group stage draw with Sunday’s final opponents, Spain.
He set up Antonio Di Natale’s goal – the only one conceded by Spain in the tournament – and kept the world champions on the alert throughout with his penetrating passing and elusive movement.
Sitting deeper than most creative midfielders, Pirlo tends to find himself extra time and space and has been able to pressurize every side Italy have faced with his long, accurate delivery.
By the end of the quarter-final against England he was virtually running the show like an orchestra conductor, dictating the pace and direction of play while avoiding the flagging attentions of his rivals almost with disdain.
He is helped by having willing front runners in the shape of Balotelli and the revitalized Antonio Cassano and that combination gives Italy an energy-efficient counter-attacking capacity not available to many other leading sides at the moment.
Germany coach Joachim Loew was well aware of his threat before their semi-final meeting, saying: “Pirlo is having a sort of renaissance now. After 2010 you thought he was past his prime, but he is a genius strategist who plays a lot of balls through and he can play them where it hurts the other team the most.”
Loew and Germany knew it, but still could not stop it, as he sprayed out 86 passes, 13 of them considered “long” and 52 “medium” by UEFA’s statisticians.
Spain, having had their own close-up view of his talents three weeks ago, are similarly impressed.
“Pirlo is unique,” said Sergio Ramos, who dinked in his own “Pirloesque penalty” in Spain’s semi-final shootout win over Portugal.
“With a single pass he can open you up and leave a man one on one. He’s the player that makes the difference. He dominates and controls the match.”
Pirlo himself prefers others to do the talking and is usually quick to deflect the praise coming his way.
But he recognizes how Italy’s confidence has developed during the tournament to match their talent and goes into Sunday’s final in a positive frame of mind.
“We are enjoying our football again,” he said. “We have the quality and are hungry for success.” (Reuters)