Euro 2012 Final: 10 Things to Expect from Spain vs. Italy
July 1, 2012. Olympic Stadium, Kiev, Ukraine. Spain vs. Italy. The pieces are now set.
Which group was the European Championship's "group of death" again? It was not exactly the final we expected, but it is hardly shocking.
Italy had to overcome incredible adversity going into the tournament. There were many who questioned whether or not the Italians would stay in the tournament after news of another scandal broke out in Serie A.
For Spain, it was business as usual...sort of. Yes, the Spaniards predictably made it to the final and yes, they won many matches by just a single goal, but something was different this time around.
Spain has looked very vulnerable throughout this summer's Euro, and Italy will enter the match knowing it can lift the trophy.
With legends spread all over the pitch and the reigning champs having a chance at history, this Group C rematch has the potential to be a classic.
Read on to see 10 things that can be expected from this mouthwatering UEFA Euro 2012 final.
A Lesson in Football
When Xavi Hernandez and Andrea Pirlo share the field, footballers take notes.
These are two of the very best players of their generation. These are two of the best passers in history.
Xavi can dazzle any team with his passes and have the opposition running in circles. Pirlo can put the ball in the air and drop it on a dime anywhere on the pitch.
Both players have a World Cup title to their name. Neither player has ever played in a league outside of their home country, a nationalistic loyalty that is all too rare today.
This Sunday, students and fans alike will witness a clinic on passing, vision, positioning, footwork, and leadership. Any young footballer would be wise to study and model themselves after these two greats.
If these were the only two midfielders on the pitch, that alone would be an impressive display of talent to behold.
Add in Andres Iniesta, Claudio Marchisio, David Silva, Ricardo Montolivo, Sergio Busquets, and Daniele de Rossi and you have one of the most talented and incredible midfield battles in modern footballing history.
As a fan of the game, not necessarily of any team of club in particular, there are few matchups that would rival the Euro 2012 final in terms of midfield talent.
A Different Result
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One thing is certain: We will not see a repeat of the Group C opener. When these two first met less than a month ago, the result was a 1-1 draw.
Fans will now be treated to a rematch of what should arguably have been considered the "group of death" in the first place.
This time, he stage is much bigger and a winner will certainly be crowned. Whether it takes 90 minutes, 120 minutes or penalties, a winner must be decided.
Whoever wins will become the kings of Europe. For very different reasons, both Italy and Spain want and need this victory.
A win would go a long way to rebuilding the image of one team and would cement the other's place in history.
Ballon D'Or Finalist?
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Going back to 1996, the European finals match has always featured a top three Ballon d'Or or World Player of the Year finalist.
Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo will fight for the title or world's best player, but who will win bronze?
Will the third-best player in football be on the pitch this Sunday? Could it be a midfielder?
Xavi scored the most goals in his career this season while Andrea Pirlo had one of his best seasons ever, leading Juventus back to the top of Italian football.
Iniesta has played a large part for Spain this summer, but missed a lot of time at Barcelona. Mario Balotelli helped Manchester City to the top of English football and maybe Italy to the top of Europe.
What about the keepers? Both helped lead their teams to a league title and the Euro 2012 final.
There are a few other candidates who have made their own claim for a top three finish.
Mezut Ozil led all of Europe in assists and helped guide Real Madrid to a record-breaking season. He also helped Germany to the European semifinals.
Robin van Persie was a hot candidate in the first half of the season before killing all chances of winning at the Euros. Still, he has a strong argument for a top three finish.
The player of the tournament will almost certainly be decided by who wins the final. But will any of them be one of the top three for FIFA's World Player of the Year award?
Goals to Come at a Premium
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Before Mezut Ozil's penalty in the 92nd minute, Italy had not allowed a goal in over 228 minute.Impressive to say the least.
The reigning champions, Spain have not allowed a goal in 310 minutes. Astounding! The last team to score against La Roja? Italy in the Group C opener.
Spain just shut out one of the greatest attacks in Europe for 120 minutes in taking Ronaldo and Portugal to penalties in the semifinals.
Similarly, Italy kept Germany—who had not lost a match in 15 tries and had not trailed an opponent in 1,300 minutes—without a goal for 91 minutes.
If the form of these two teams so far are any indication, goals will be very hard to come by in the final.
If the first match between them is at all telling, one goal may be enough to become European champions.
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There are few players who polarize fans and analysts as much as Mario Balotelli. Whether we are talking about club or country, Super Mario has as many fans as he does critics.
When he is at his best, Balotelli can change the fate of his team—as he showed against Germany. When he is not on his game, he is a risk to put his team a man down—whether or not he stays on the pitch.
One player who can definitely relate to this is Fernando Torres. This tournament has been the perfect example of how fickle fans can be with Torres.
Going into the tournament, fans were divided over whether or not Torres even deserved to make the squad.
After firing blanks against Italy, most said Torres was a mistake for Spain just as he has generally been for Chelsea.
Less than a week later, after scoring a brace against a subpar Irish side, analysts were screaming that "Torres was back" and had found his old form.
Both Balotelli and Torres are greatly scrutinized for every step and every decision. When these two meet in the Euro 2012 final, both will have a chance to alter their own legacies.
Of course, this is assuming Spain even fields a striker...
Clash of Styles
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Part of why goals will be hard to come by is the style of philosophy that each team subscribes to.
This is a tactical-minded fan's dream.
On one end will be Spain, led by Vicente del Bosque.The champions' possession-based, high pressure football usually makes for a long, ground out result that limits chances of the opposition.
So far this tournament, del Bosque has most often chosen not to field a true striker and opted instead to field six midfielders. Chances are he will do the same against Italy once again.
At the other end will be Italy, led by Cesare Prandelli. The defensive pedigree of Italy is very hard to break down.
In the first match, Prandelli elected to use a three-man defense against the reigning champions. The result was a battle in the midfield where chances were few and risks were great.
The tactical battle will be one of the most enticing of the entire tournament and the team that better executes their game plan is likely to be the winner.
The manager that makes the best adjustments in the event of a stalemate will also probably be the one to list the trophy when the final whistle blows.
Legends in Goal
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Bayern Munich and Germany fans will look at the last few years and say that Manuel Neuer is the best keeper in the world.
Chelsea fans will argue that their Champions League run made Petr Cech the best.
But those fans who have closely watched multiple leagues for the past decade will know the truth—the two greatest keepers in football are about to battle in the Euro 2012 final.
When Iker Casillas and Gianluigi Buffon meet this Sunday in Kiev, the two best keepers of their generation will meet head to head for the second time in a month.
These two club and national team captains have been at the top of the football world for over a decade.
European titles, World Cup trophies, league trophies, European and world starting XIs. You name it and one of these two keepers have won it.
Some may say that one or both players have slowed down a bit. If those critics are being honest with themselves, they probably don't even watch these guys on a weekly basis.
A True Classic Between the Reigning Champions
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The first match between these two sides was a showcase of exciting, technical football between two very balanced teams.
Spain entered the tournament as one of the favorites despite the fact that no team has ever repeated as European champions and despite losing their defensive and attacking leaders in Carles Puyol and David Villa.
The first obstacle in Spain's long, difficult road to retaining their title was Italy, one of the most prestigious and decorated teams in football.
Spain and Italy now meet again in a battle between the last two World Cup winners.
Spain is, of course, the reigning world champion. This Sunday it will aim to become the first team in history to repeat as European champions.
Italy had a very poor World Cup showing in South Africa but won the previous tournament in 2006 and was also in the finals of the 2000 European Championships.
The Azzurri have a title-winning pedigree that goes back to the beginning of international competition while Spain is in the middle of its greatest and most successful period in history.
There is barely a bigger or more glorious way to decide the winner of Europe's greatest tournament.
More of the Same from Italy?
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Another scandal, another trophy.
The last time Italy had a match-fixing scandal, they went on to win the 2006 World Cup.
With news about another scandal cropping up daily in Italy, the Azzurri are once again entering a huge tournament with fans in doubt.
There were rumors that the team would not even play in the tournament given how serious the allegations were. Given Italy's rather poor form over the last few years, this type of distraction is the last thing they needed.
Now the Azzurri are one match away from European glory. Fans may be treated to the best of distractions after all.
For all the recent talk about Spain's place in the history of football, think about these points if Italy wins the Euro 2012 final:
Going back to 2006, both Spain AND Italy would have won a World Cup and a European Championship. Domestically, Spain AND Italy would have won two Champions League titles apiece.
Which team has built a dynasty again?
Football's Newest Dynasty?
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Spain is the reigning European and World Cup champion. The top-ranked team in the world. It is impossible to talk about the strongest national or club sides in Europe without mentioning La Roja.
Over the last four years, Barcelona—one of Spain's two greatest clubs—has built one of the strongest club sides in the history of football. Real Madrid is also trying to create its own new era of European dominance.
If Spain can repeat as champion this summer, it will not only be the first team to do so, it will also almost certainly solidify the team's legacy as a dynasty.
By winning three major tournaments in a row while housing at least one of the greatest club sides in history, Spain will enter the upper echelons of footballing lore.
Lifting the 2012 Henri Delaunay Trophy would make the current Spanish team nothing short of legendary in Spanish history.
Their journey began with Italy. It will now end with Italy.
This article was originally published by the author on Counter-Attacking Football, a blog which focuses on La Liga, Serie A and the Bundesliga.