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Spain cements its place in history with unprecedented title run

KIEV, Ukraine -- Three thoughts after Spain's 4-0 win over Italy in the Euro 2012 final:

Let's call Spain what it is: The most accomplished international soccer team of all time. What more could you ask for? On a glorious summer night in Ukraine, Spain played a spectacular game against the four-time world champions, carving up the Italian defense with speed and precision to leave no doubt that this Spanish team's accomplishments deserve to be in the sport's pantheon ahead of Brazil (1958-62, 1970), France (1998-2000) and West Germany (1972-74). In doing so, Spain becomes the first country ever to be a two-time reigning European champion and World Cup champion at the same time. Just as importantly, Spain turned on the style more than it had at any point in this tournament, giving us brilliant passing sequences that led to goals by David Silva, Jordi Alba, Fernando Torres and Juan Mata. The highlights of their goals -- the motion, the imagination, the beauty -- will live on in the history of sports, and for that we can all be thankful that we got the chance to witness it.

No Spanish center forward? No problem. For three weeks we'd heard questions about coach Vicente del Bosque's 4-6-0 lineup that lacked a true center forward, but the reality was that Spain never needed a diminished Torres as a starter. In the absence of all-time leading scorer David Villa, who was injured, Cesc Fabregas performed well in a withdrawn central role, scoring two goals in the tournament and providing a terrific assist at speed on Silva's opener in the final. This was a tournament of midfielders -- no player in Euro 2012 scored more than three goals -- and with six midfielders Spain was a perfect reflection of that fact. Just running through the names reveals an embarrassment of riches: Andrés Iniesta, Xavi, Silva, Fabregas, Xabi Alonso, Sergio Busquets. Xavi in particular had a tremendous game in the final, combining with Alba and Torres on two beautiful goals and showing more verve and stamina than he had in previous games. But the truth was that all of the Spanish midfielders were in top form in a final for the ages.

Italy's own attacking play allowed for the spectacle. From the opening kickoff, Spain played at a faster pace than it had during any point in Euro 2012, going vertical with its passing and much less horizontal (as we had seen leading up to the final). Part of that may have been due to a Spanish desire to silence anyone who was criticizing them as "boring," but the main reason was Italy's decision to play attacking soccer of its own. The Italians created chances in this game and weren't going to change their tactics out of fear, for which coach Cesare Prandelli deserves a tremendous amount of credit. But Italy's forays upfield opened up space that the Spanish exploited with ruthless efficiency and speed. When you pack it in against Spain (a la France or Portugal, at least in the second half of the semis), playing fast, vertical soccer is exceedingly difficult. If space opens up, as it did against Italy, Spain will break you. Unfortunately, Italy's reduction to 10 men after Thiago Motta's injury (and the exhaustion of Italy's three subs) caused much of the second half to be a more conservative affair.

Player of the Tournament: Andrés Iniesta, Spain.

The Spanish maestro was tremendous all tournament, keeping defenders off-balance and showing surpassing imagination. Iniesta's movements are like brush strokes from an impressionist. Remarkable stuff.

Goalkeeper: Iker Casillas, Spain.

Spain never gave up a goal after Antonio Di Natale's strike in their opening game, but team's did have chances, and Saint Iker snuffed them out every time.

Right back: Theodor Gebre Selassie, Czech Republic.

One of Euro 2012's weaker positions, but give Gebre Selassie credit for standing out with his pushes upfield. Not his best game in the quarterfinal vs. Portugal, but he was exemplary otherwise.

Center back: Pepe, Portugal.

It's a lot easier to like Portugal Pepe than Real Madrid Pepe. This one was solid (but not thuggish) in the central defense and showed great poise in front of the opposing goal, too, scoring once and hitting a penalty against Spain.

Center back: Sergio Ramos, Spain.

Spain's stingy defense was due in large part to the partnership of Ramos and Gerard Piqué, but I'll give Ramos the nod for adapting to the role in the absence of the injured Carles Puyol -- and for the cojones to hit a Panenka penalty against Portugal in the semis.

Left back: Jordi Alba, Spain.

I was about to give this to Germany's Philipp Lahm, but Alba's majestic long run and goal against Italy in the final put him over the top. Barcelona has just acquired one of the great left backs of the future (and perhaps the present).

Holding midfielder: Xabi Alonso, Spain.

Though Xavi didn't have his best tournament for Spain, Alonso did a lot to make up for it, producing hundreds of passes, covering acres of space and showing a scoring touch of his own.

Holding midfielder: Sami Khedira, Germany.

Calling Alonso and Khedira "holding midfielders" is a little unfair, since both were dangerous moving forward in this tournament and scored important goals doing so. In fact, Khedira was more dangerous than teammate Bastian Schweinsteiger when he pushed up but still provided steel in the center of the park. (And yes, if you're noticing that there are six Real Madrid players on my Best XI, I noticed, too.)

Wing midfielder: Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal.

Ronaldo was a truly dominant player for the Portuguese, scoring twice against the Netherlands and once against the Czechs, and if you could believe it he hit the woodwork four times, too. Had his chance late to beat Spain and missed it. You don't get too many of those.

Attacking central midfielder: Andrea Pirlo, Italy.

If Italy had won in the final, Pirlo would have been the obvious player of the tournament. Written off as too old by many, the 33-year-old playmaker was devastating here, adding sterling moments of quality in every game.

Wing midfielder: Andrés Iniesta, Spain.

See above.

Center forward: Mario Balotelli, Italy.

It wasn't a good tournament for center forwards, and Balotelli struggled to make an impact in the final, but he was magnificent in the semifinal, scoring twice and providing a hint of what may be to come for the 21-year-old.

Thanks for following during Euro 2012. I had a blast!

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