KIEV, Ukraine – Fatigue finally caught up with Italy. Forced by injuries to end the match with 10 players, the Azzurri had no answer for Spain's passing wizardry in the European Championship final on Sunday.
Even "Super" Mario Balotelli couldn't break free to rescue the Azzurri this time, and the 4-0 loss was the most lopsided final in tournament history, eclipsing West Germany's 3-0 win over the Soviet Union in 1972.
Still, for a squad that entered this tournament without any big expectations and was hobbled by a match-fixing scandal, Italy can hardly be disappointed with a runner-up finish.
"This was a great European Championship for us," Italy coach Cesare Prandelli said. "Really the only regret is that we didn't have a few extra days to recuperate. You could tell right away that they were fresher physically."
But coach Cesare Prandelli couldn't have been pleased with the way his squad sat back with eight men behind the ball in the first 15 minutes, which led to David Silva's opening goal in the 14th.
Seven minutes later, Italy's dependable right back Giorgio Chiellini limped off with an apparent left hamstring injury, the same problem that kept him out of the quarterfinal victory over England.
Midfielder Daniele De Rossi, who had to exit the England match with a sciatic nerve problem, also appeared far from 100 percent, and Spain defender Jordi Alba made it 2-0 in the 41st, racing past Leonardo Bonucci and shooting around helpless Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon.
De Rossi and defender Andrea Barzagli were so exhausted before the match that they didn't even take part in Saturday's final practice session. Also, for the second consecutive game Prandelli presented his match strategy to the squad on video, simply because the team did not have enough energy to do it on the pitch.
Prandelli has preached an attack-at-all-costs mentality much like Spain, but after requiring 120 minutes and a shootout to beat England in the quarterfinals, then another physical victory over Germany in the semifinals, the strategy appeared to take its toll.
While Antonio Cassano threatened occasionally in the first half, he was replaced by Antonio Di Natale to start the second. Having had minor heart surgery in November, Cassano was out for more than five months. He returned in April but still hasn't fully recovered his fitness.
Di Natale provided a brief spark at the start of the second half, but when midfielder Thiago Motta fell to the pitch untouched grasping his right hamstring at the hour mark, it spelled the end for Italy's comeback chances.
Motta, who had some physical problems in training last week, had to be carried off on a stretcher, and Italy had already used all three of its substitutions, leaving the Azzurri with 10 men on the pitch.
"Once we were down to 10 men there wasn't much we could do," Prandelli said. "We attempted to get back in the match at the start of the second half, but then when we lost Thiago Motta the match was finished."
Motta had replaced Riccardo Montolivo just 4 minutes earlier.
"(Montolivo) was really, really tired," Prandelli said. "The entire midfield was exhausted."
Balotelli's best chance came midway through the first half, but Spain goalkeeper Iker Casillas pushed Federico Balzaretti's cross away just as the 21-year-old striker was lining up a header from close range.
A goal would have given Balotelli sole possession of the tournament scoring lead. Still, his three goals left him tied with five other players, giving Italy hope for the future.
"After a loss, you never accept it with serenity. But as time passes, we have to realize that what we did was extraordinary," Prandelli said. "We really showed courage and had a great tournament."