Sunday's European Championship final will be a titanic clash between an established world power in Italy and the sport's nouveau riche in Spain, the world game's elite team for the past four years, having won both Euro 2008 and the 2010 World Cup.
This will be the third time the teams have met in the last two European Championships, having squared off in the quarterfinal of Euro 2008 (a 0-0 draw that went to Spain on penalties) and in the group stage opener of this tournament on June 10 (a 1-1 draw).
The last two World Cup winners will clash once again with the European Cup on the line. Spain was expected to get here, but their road was much rockier than one would have anticipated. Some tabbed Italy for a second consecutive group-stage crash-out, especially after the calcioscommesse scandal rocked the Italian game in the week before the tournament.
Let's take a closer look at the Finals matchup as we approach this clash of titans.
|Azzurri||Nickname||La furia roja|
|12||FIFA World Ranking||1|
4 (1934, 1938,
|World Championships||1 (2010)|
|1 (1968)||European Championships||2 (1964, 2008)|
|Cesare Prandelli||Coach||Vicente Del Bosque|
|Gianluigi Buffon||Captain||Iker Casillas|
|10||Head-to-Head Wins (12 draws)||8|
|Group Stage||Last World Cup||Champion|
|Quarterfinal||Last European Championship||Champion|
|DDWD*W||Last 5 Matches||DWWWD*|
*Win in penalties
June 10: Group Stage v. Spain 1-1
June 14: Group Stage v. Croatia 1-1
June 18: Group Stage v. Ireland 2-0
June 24: Quarterfinal v. England 0-0 (4-2 in shootout)
June 28: Semifinal v. Germany 2-1
Italy's level of play in this tournament has been improving every time. The biggest match in that progression, however, is the first one. It will be the template of how Prandelli will attack the Spaniards on Sunday.
Italy thoroughly outplayed the Spaniards in their group stage opener. Prandelli surprised the Spaniards with a 3-5-2 formation that packed the passing lanes in the interior of the field, taking advantage of the fact that the Spaniards play very narrowly in their tiki-taka style.
Spain was held to 60% possession, an abnormally low number for the Spaniards. Italy made their possession count on the hour, with Andrea Pirlo slipping a ball to Antonio Di Natale, who cooly beat Casillas to the far post.
The Italians were unlucky not to win the game. Claudio Marchisio had a golden opportunity to score a winner late on but shot right at Iker Casillas.
The Spaniards were only able to equalize because of dual mistakes by Giorgio Chiellini and Emanuele Giaccherini. But for that goal by Cesc Fabregas, the Spaniards hardly ever tested Gianluigi Buffon.
The Azzurri's play steadily improved as the tournament went on. After dominating Croatia for the first half of their match, the Croatians were able to make an adjustment that allowed them far more possession of the ball, with another mistake by Chiellini allowing them to equalize.
There were no such mistakes against Ireland. Needing a victory to advance, Antonio Cassano put the team ahead with a corner kick in the first half. The Italians had other chances, but had to sit on their one-goal lead for most of the match as Ireland pressed for an equalizer. Their efforts became moot at the death when Mario Balotelli hit a bicycle kick goal off another corner to seal the match.
There were no questions in the quarterfinal as to who the better team was. After a furious opening 15 minutes, the English ceded the Italians possession and from then on were hanging on by the skin of their teeth.
The Italians fired 35 shots, 20 of them on target, but none of them were able to breach Joe Hart's goal. The match went to penalties, and the Italians fell behind 2-1 when Riccardo Montolivo missed his spot kick.
But when Andrea Pirlo chipped his penalty down the middle past Hart, it unnerved the English, whose next two kickers missed, and Alessandro Diamanti sent the Italians to the semis.
The semifinal began much as the quarters did. Germany pressed them for the first ten minutes, but Italy then seized control.
The difference between the quarterfinal was that Italy finally seized their chances. Balotelli scored twice in the first half, and the Italians effectively neutralized the vaunted German attack, hardly allowing any genuine chances to score until Federico Balzaretti handled the ball in the box in stoppage time, with Mesut Ozil converting the penalty.
It was too little too late to save the Germans, despite their desperate attempts in the final two minutes of stoppage time. The Italians pulled the upset and went on to their first Euro final since their loss to the French in 2000.
June 10: Group Stage v. Italy 1-1
June 14: Group Stage v. Ireland 4-0
June 18: Group Stage v. Croatia 1-0
June 23: Quarterfinal v. France 2-0
June 27: Semifinal v. Portugal 0-0 (4-2 in shootout)
Spain's bacon was saved by Cesc Fabregas in the group stage opener against Italy, and they immediately responded by absolutely dominating Ireland in a 4-0 thrashing, with Fernando Torres scoring a brace in his return to action in a major tournament.
But the high didn't last long. Croatia played the Spaniards hard and well, and la furia roja were lucky not to go down 1-0 in the second half, when Iker Casillas made a spectacular save on an Ivan Rakitic header.
Substitute Jesus Navas was able to finally slip through the Croatian defense and score in the 88th minute to knock the Croatians out of the tournament.
After thoroughly dominating the French in a 2-0 victory in the quarterfinals, they advanced to the semifinal for an Iberian Derby matchup against Portugal. The Portuguese played a fantastic match, and pressed the Spaniards for much of the night.
It seemed that the two extra days of rest Cristiano Ronaldo and Company had been blessed with by UEFA's strange scheduling were going to be decisive, but the Portuguese were only able to find the target with two of their 10 shots, and in extra time the old Spain came out as time evened the fatigue factor.
Portugal was able to hold on to send the match to penalties, but were unable to capitalize on an opening miss by Xabi Alonso when Casillas saved Joao Moutinho's kick. The rest of the Spaniards converted their kicks, and Portugal's Bruno Alves cracked the crossbar with his team's fourth penalty.
Fabregas then put his shot off the inside of the post and in to win the match and give Spain the chance to defend their title.
The mercurial striker certainly showed what he can do when he's on against Germany. The Manchester City man's two goals were things of beauty, particularly his second, when he took a long pass from Riccardo Montolivo and hammered a rocket shot into the top corner past keeper Manuel Neuer.
Balotelli had a terrible game in the group match against Spain, punctuated by his complete wasting of a one-on-one chance against Iker Casillas. Five minutes after he was replaced by Antonio Di Natale, the Udinese man scored to give Italy a short-lived lead.
Since then, Super Mario has scored three times and cooly slotted a penalty past club teammate Joe Hart in the shootout against England.
He looks to be coming to the top of his form, and if he can find the seams in the Spanish back four—which has looked less than rock-solid at times this tournament—he could fire his country to its first European Championship in more than 40 years.
L'architetto has been the player of the tournament thus far. Win or lose, he's going to be a major candidate for the tournament's Golden Ball.
Pirlo absolutely dominated the quarterfinal against England and then took a huge part in the victory against Germany, despite the fact that the Germans had game-planned to stop him.
He won't be able to have the room he had against England, but he played a great game against the Spaniards in the group stage, putting up a borderline man-of-the-match performance.
He will be dueling with Xavi Hernandez for control of the midfield. Whoever wins that battle wins the match.
Absent from the group-stage matchup due to an injury suffered in the pre-tournament friendly against Russia, Barzagli returned in the group stage finale against Ireland and immediately strengthened what at times looked like a defense that was holding on by a thread.
Together with Gigi Buffon, Leonardo Bonucci, and Giorgio Chiellini, he formed the spine of the best defensive team in Europe this season, and he's going to be instrumental in manning the barricades against the relentless Spanish attack.
For Italy to succeed he must play mistake-free soccer.
Xavi's metronomic passing is the key to the Spanish attack, and he'll be dueling with Pirlo for dominance of the midfield. He'll have to do a better job of it than in the group stage meeting.
Though the Spaniards did have 60% possession, the Italians were able to make good use of the ball when they did have it, with Pirlo playing a fantastic game.
Xavi will have to play the dual role of initiating the attack and not giving Pirlo the room to operate that he had against England and Germany. If he succeeds, Spain will likely defend their title.
Consistently the hero for the Spaniards in this tournament, it was his goal that equalized against Italy in the group stage meeting.
With Del Bosque not particularly enamored with any of his strikers at the moment, Fabregas is one of the players who has consistently played up top in the "faux nine" formation that the Spaniards have chiefly deployed this tournament.
Without a principle striker, much of the goal-scoring onus will fall on the Barcelona man. He will be the target for the Italian back four to keep bottled up.
Gerard Pique has been asked to step up as Spain's top defender in the absence of Carles Puyol, and for the most part he has responded. Spain has only allowed one goal in this tournament—the one scored in the group stage opener by Antonio Di Natale.
Pique's tournament hasn't been perfect, however. He was the one whom Di Natale beat with Andrea Pirlo's perfect through ball, and the Spanish defense as a whole has sometimes seemed vulnerable.
Only Iker Casillas' fantastic save prevented Croatia from taking what would have been a deserved lead in their group stage finale, and Portugal was able to find their way through for a few threatening moments as well.
With Mario Balotelli looking like he's starting to round into form, it will be imperative for Spain that Pique be on the top of his game.
I criticized Prandelli heavily for his handling of the Domenico Criscito situation and the rest of the calcioscommesse fallout before the tournament began. I further criticized him when word got round that he was planning to go with a 3-5-2 formation against Spain.
His decision ended up being golden. But for one mistake in defense, the Italians held firm against the Spanish attack.
Prandelli has won the last three contests with his more traditional diamond 4-4-2 formation on the field, but it may behoove him to return to the 3-5-2 in this game.
Spain plays a narrow attack that the 3-5-2 is a very effective counter against. Add to that the fact that unlike in the first matchup, Andrea Barzagli is healthy, and Giorgio Chiellini has seemingly recovered from the thigh injury he suffered against Ireland.
This means that they, along with Leonardo Bonucci, can play the formation as they played it at Juventus and allow Daniele De Rossi, who was in the middle of that three-man line against Spain and Croatia, to return to the midfield.
Also involved in this decision should be the health of right-back Ignazio Abate. Injured in the quarterfinal against England, there are still questions about his fitness. Should he be unable to go for the final, Christian Maggio, returning from suspension, would be his replacement.
Maggio is much more natural as a wing-back—his role at the club level with Napoli—than a traditional fullback.
He also has the decision as to whether to start Thiago Motta—a physical player who can help disrupt the rhythm of the Spanish midfielders—or Riccardo Montolivo—who played a good game against Germany and has scored a goal against the Spaniards in the past—in the midfield.
My personal preference would be Motta for his physicality, but Montolivo is a favorite of Prandelli's from their Fiorentina days and has been improving as the tournament has gone on.
Del Bosque has endured withering criticism from Spanish media throughout the tournament as he insists on relying on his "faux nine" formation in the absence of all-world striker David Villa, who broke his leg in the Club World Cup semifinal in December.
My guess is that Del Bosque goes with his six midfielders once again in this match. Fernando Torres, mistrusted though he is by the Spanish manager, will likely be left to come on late and take advantage of a worn-down Italian defense, much like what he was asked to do in the group stage match—although he missed two gilt-edged chances in that matchup.
The former Real Madrid manager has so far been able to get results from his team, but this is a different Italy side than the one he faced on June 10. He will have to get the best out of his players, or else there will be a new champion in Europe.
Apart from the group-stage matchup, Italy and Spain have met up twice in the last four years. Please excuse my time-saving measure of lifting the descriptions of these matches from my own preview article from their first match of the tournament.
Friendly, August 10, 2011—Italy 2 Spain 1
Last year's August friendly pitted the Italians and Spaniards against one another at the Stadio San Nicola in Bari. The Italians surprisingly controlled the opening portion of the game and took the lead through a wonderful chip by Riccardo Montolivo 11 minutes in.
The Spaniards clawed their way back when German referee Felix Brych awarded a penalty when he (somewhat harshly) judged that Giorgio Chiellini had brought Fernando Llorente down in the box. The subsequent spot-kick was converted by Xabi Alonso in the 37th minute.
The Italians continued to press forward, with Antonio Cassano coming close to restoring Italy's lead twice before the half.
The Spaniards were able to play their game and press the Italians in the second half, piling on the pressure and forcing several saves from Gianluigi Buffon before substitute Alberto Aquilani's long-range effort deflected off Raul Albiol into the net in the 84th, giving the Italians an impressive upset win.
Euro 2008 Quarterfinal, June 22, 2008—Italy 0 Spain 0 (Spain wins shootout 4-2)
The Azzurri and la furia roja played out an uninspiring extra-time draw during their quarterfinal matchup in this tournament four years ago.
The closest the Italians came to breaching Iker Casillas' goal was shortly after the hour mark, when substitute Mauro Camoranesi fired a shot following a goal-line scramble that Casillas somehow saved with his legs.
Marcos Senna was the closest for Spain, when Buffon was forced to parry away a long-range free kick 11 minutes from time. Shortly afterwards, Buffon fumbled a routine shot from Senna and was lucky to see it bounce off the post.
Extra time saw some nervy moments, with David Silva beating Buffon but missing the target, while Casillas had to tip a header from Antonio Di Natale over the bar, and Luca Toni headed just over the bar as well.
In the shootout, David Villa and Fabio Grosso—the hero of World Cup 2006—both scored on the opening kicks before Casillas denied midfielder Daniele De Rossi.
With the score 3-2, Buffon denied Dani Guiza, but Di Natale couldn't get his kick past Casillas, and Cesc Fabregas slotted Spain's fifth and final kick home to win and go through to the semifinals.
Alvaro Arbeloa v. Federico Balzaretti
With respect to Alvaro Arbeloa, he wouldn't be playing if Carles Puyol were healthy. If that were the case, Puyol would be partnering Pique, and Sergio Ramos would be playing on the right rather than in the center.
Arbeloa will be facing a much different test than he did in the group stage. Emanuele Giaccherini was the on the Italian left side in that match, and he didn't play particularly well in a role he wasn't particularly familiar with.
That will change in the final, with Federico Balzaretti the likely starter. Balzaretti was a terror on the left for the first half of the quarterfinal against England, until the Italian attack slowly shifted focus to the other side of the field.
He then played an impressive match out of position on the right side to fill in for the injured Abate and suspended Maggio.
Prandelli relies on his fullbacks for width in his attack, so he will be counting on the Palermo man to help his team down the left flank.
This will be an interesting battle between a left-back who is excellent at getting forward against a right-back who isn't particularly adept at going forward and is more liable to stay home.
Antonio Cassano v. Sergio Ramos
Antonio Cassano ran wild in the first matchup between these two teams. He played a fantastic match and was unlucky not to score. He also set up a few chances that his teammates weren't able to take.
While he hasn't quite played up to that standard since, he's been in excellent form in this tournament and will look to replicate his performance.
Looking to lock him down will be a defense led by Ramos, who had to move from the right to the center after Puyol was injured late in the La Liga season.
There were questions as to whether he would be able to partner effectively with defensive partner Gerard Pique as El Classico has heated up over the last few years.
So far the two have worked together well, but there have been some shaky moments in the back, and it is obvious that this team misses Puyol immensely.
Ramos will have to take a big part in containing Cassano in order to defend his country's title.
Gianluigi Buffon v. Iker Casillas
The two best goalkeepers in the world square off once again. Considering both club and country, Buffon has had the slight edge in the matchup between the two.
Both have been in great form in this tournament. Both have won shootouts on a 4-2 score, saving one and having an opponent miss another.
Buffon made some uncharacteristic errors in the semifinal against Germany, but wasn't made to pay for them. Casillas was only tested twice against Portugal before the shootout, and handled both situations.
It is likely that whichever goalkeeper and captain plays better will be walking away with the European Championship.
This is a titanic matchup in which it's very likely that whoever takes home the trophy, soccer will be the winner.
Spain has seemed mortal at times in this tournament. I think that the excessive amount of games la furia roja's players have played for club and country over the last four years—often between 60 and 70—is finally beginning to take its toll.
Exhaustion, injury, and, in the case of the strikers, ineffectiveness, have given this team holes that it's never had before, and I think they will finally catch up with them.
The Azzurri seem to have fate on their side in this tournament. For some reason, the Italians play better when domestic scandal creates that us-against-the-world mentality.
I think they will find the weaknesses that have been on display in the Spanish defense for much of this tournament, but it will take more than the 90 minutes.
I'll tab Cassano and Balotelli to each find the back of Casillas' net before defending their lead with the help of Barzagli, whose introduction will be a boon to a defense that sagged late in the group stage matchup.
My final prediction, in extra time, and the NEW European Champions: Italy, 2-1.