Spain’s style of play different, not boring

Boring? Spanish soccer? Really?

Gimme a break.

Hard to believe anybody could be questioning Spain, the reigning World Cup and Euro Cup champion, the team that faces Italy in Sunday’s Euro 2012 final, the team that is on the cusp of becoming the first in history to win the Euro-World Cup-Euro trifecta.

Boring? Because the Spaniards are masters of the short pass?

Boring? Because they like to ticky-tack around the field like perfectly synchronized flippers on a pinball machine until they find that perfect opening, all the while playing keep-away from their opponents? Is there really anything wrong with that?

It certainly is working.

Consider this: Spain has allowed one goal in the knockout stages of the 2008 Euro Cup, 2010 World Cup or 2012 Euro Cup — a total of nine matches. It has outscored opponents 10-0 in those critical games.

In 2008, Spain beat Italy 0-0 on penalty kicks in the quarterfinals, Russia 3-0 in the semifinals and Germany 1-0 in the final. At the 2010 World Cup, it beat Portugal, Paraguay, Germany and Netherlands all by scores of 1-0. And last week, it knocked off France 2-0 and Portugal 0-0 on penalty kicks.

Was Italy’s 2-1 semifinal victory over Germany on Thursday more fun to watch than Spain’s scoreless 120 minutes against Portugal? Yes. Did the Italians attack more and make exciting run after exciting run? Yes.

But that doesn’t mean Spain is boring. The Spaniards are just different, and Sunday’s final (2:45 p.m., ESPN) should be a sizzling matchup between two soccer powers with passionate fans.

The matchup is particularly intriguing at this stage in history because both nations are steeped in debt crisis. Spain and Italy have been dominating the European financial headlines of late, and fans in both places surely could stand some good news to celebrate right about now.

Italy looked very impressive from start to finish against the favored Germans and never stopped attacking. The score easily could have been 4-0. “Super Mario” Balotelli’s two goals were fantastic — one by head, one by foot. His power, skill and speed stood out on an Italian team determined to prove it could do more than defend.

(Back story on Balotelli: He is 21 and plays for Manchester City. He was born in Sicily to Ghanian immigrants, but given to Italian foster parents at age 3 when he suffered from intestinal problems and his parents couldn’t afford to pay for his medical care or provide proper housing. He became an Italian citizen three years ago and is a controversial figure because of his off-field antics. He got a yellow card Thursday for ripping his shirt off and flexing after his second goal.)

Balotelli was hardly the only hero Thursday. The Italians are still very solid in the back, and Gianluigi Buffon made a lovely leaping save on a free kick in the 61st minute. Italy has not allowed a goal in more than 300 minutes. Spain will have to work hard to break through. The Italians will have to figure out a way to get the ball away from the Spaniards and keep them from their ticky-tacky strategy.

Spain coach Vincente Del Bosque conceded that his team struggled to win its semifinal.

“Portugal were superior defensively,” he said. “We did not have that many opportunities in regulation. We had more chances in extra time. Once it went to penalties, we were lucky, so I want to congratulate Portugal.”

He also said his team looked tired, and who can blame them, considering many of the Spanish players have hardly had a break since last September: “I have to say, all the players are at the limits of their physical abilities right now.”

Will Spain muster the energy to beat a resurgent Italy? Will Italy find a way to disrupt Spain’s clinical passing? Time will tell. One thing is for certain. It won’t be boring.

Postscript: Cristiano Ronaldo Paulo Bento

“The order was [ Joao] Moutinho. Pepe. Nani. [ Bruno] Alves. Ronaldo. That is what we decided. Alves was a little confused, that’s all, but it was not decisive,” Bento said. “If it had been 4-4 and Ronaldo struck the winning penalty, we would be talking differently about this whole thing. We did what we thought would give us the best chance to succeed, and it did not work. I don’t regret anything.”