This Sunday, Spain, the 2010 World Cup Champions, will face Italy, their 2006 predecessors, in the final of the 2012 European Championships.
Having successfully navigated the challenges of fellow favorites Portugal and Germany in their respective semifinals, they will once again return to the biggest stage to contest this summer’s top prize, just weeks after they clashed in the group stages.
In the National Stadium in Kiev this Sunday, we will witness a clash between two top tactical and managerial minds in Spain’s Vicente Del Bosque and Italy’s Cesare Prandelli.
And here are five key battles to watch on the pitch as Spain take on Italy.
Without defensive rock Carles Puyol alongside him, Gerard Pique has had an inconsistent tournament so far.
His normally cultured passing and defending have been off-key, and his uncertain performance in the center of defence was on full display against Portugal in Wednesday night’s semifinal.
His opponent for the night will be Antonio Cassano, who has been a livewire for Prandelli’s side this summer, setting up Mario Balotelli for Italy’s opener against Germany.
He displayed his dribbling and pace against Spain in their first Group B match.
Gerard Pique will have his hands full on Sunday.
Fellow Spain defender Sergio Ramos won’t have it much easier either.
Ramos has been a more assured presence in the Spanish back four than Pique this summer, and his panenka in Wednesday’s penalty shootout win against Portugal was a sign of his confidence.
But he will not have good memories of his Group B matchup against Mario Balotelli, when his slack defending and slip allowed Balotelli to stride into the Spanish penalty box.
Balotelli hesitated and allowed Ramos to chase back for a timely tackle then, but as the Italian showed against Germany, Balotelli has now found his confidence and will be a key player for Italy up front.
In Spain’s march to the 2010 World Cup, Xavi was a key component in the center of midfield, controlling and dictating Spain’s play.
This year, it’s Andrea Pirlo who has been the tournament’s star quarterback.
They might not be in direct confrontation position-wise, given that they take up the same deep-lying position, but this is a battle between two of the absolute best playmakers in the history of the European game.
If nothing else, Sunday’s final provides an opportunity for us to marvel at the abilities of these two midfield maestros.
Then comes an unlikely matchup.
Unlikely in the sense that Cesc Fabregas and Daniele de Rossi, midfielders by trade, will come up against each other as “false nine” and converted center-back respectively.
As the spearhead of Vicente Del Bosque’s 4-6-0 formation, Fabregas has earned his spurs with a series of accomplished performances up front, linking well with the Spanish midfield.
And Cesare Prandelli’s decision to move de Rossi into a deeper, more withdrawn role has been a qualified success.
It will be fascinating to see elements of top-class midfield play come up in Spain’s final third.
Last but not least—and indeed possibly the most important—is the potentially epic battle between Spain and Italy’s No. 1’s.
Iker Casillas and Gianluigi Buffon both made massive contributions in their penalty shootout wins against Portugal and England respectively, and have been two of the world’s absolute best goalkeepers in the past two decades.
They might hold the key to victory in regulation play or in extra time, but don’t rule out another penalty shootout that might just pit their wits against each other come the final whistle.
What other matchups are you looking forward to? Who do you see winning the Euros on Sunday? Let us know in the comments below.