Euro 2012 has reached its crescendo. Spain and Italy are the last teams standing, and on Sunday they will come together in a clash of footballing cultures that will have a global audience in the hundreds of millions hanging on their every pass.
Spain are the defending European champions and reigning World Cup winners. Vicente del Bosque's revered pass masters can make history by winning a third successive major title in Kiev, Ukraine, and will be favorites to make it happen.
But Cesare Prandelli's Italy have already done for England and Germany in the knockout stages of Euro 2012, and inspired by midfielder Andrea Pirlo—arguably the player of the tournament so far—deservedly earned a shot to knock Spain off their throne.
Routes to the Final
Spain and Italy both came through Group C. The two teams drew 1-1 in their opening game of Euro 2012, with Antonio Di Natale's opener for the Italians—set up by an inspired play from Pirlo—cancelled out by an equalizer from Cesc Fabregas.
The Spanish enjoyed a 4-0 win against a weak Republic of Ireland side in the second round of group games. Fernando Torres helped himself to a brace, with the other goals coming from David Silva and Fabregas. Meanwhile, Italy were held 1-1 by Croatia after going ahead through a curling free kick from Pirlo.
It was all to play for in the final round of group matches. Spain's nerve was tested by Croatia, but eventually they prevailed thanks to a late winner from substitute Jesus Navas and won the group. Italy came through in the second spot thanks to a 2-0 win against Ireland, with goals from Antonio Cassano and Mario Balotelli.
Despite outplaying England and creating a host of chances, Italy failed to score and needed penalties to see them off in the quarterfinals. Spain were relatively untroubled in a 2-0 win against France—with Xabi Alonso scoring both goals, the second from the penalty spot.
In the semifinals, Spain triumphed in a penalty shootout against Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal after a 0-0 draw. Italy beat much-fancied Germany 2-1, with an inspired Balotelli scoring both goals to send his team through to the final.
What to Expect
Spain's game is all about possession and fluid movement. With imperious Barcelona duo Andres Iniesta and Xavi at their hub, the Spanish have built a dynasty of success on their tiki-taka passing style. The approach calls on all 10 outfield players to keep the ball moving until spaces appear in the final third. When they do, Spain go for the kill.
Italy's game plan relies heavily on Pirlo, who operates as a deep-lying playmaker and performs a quarterback-style role the Italians call "regista." The Italians are hard to break down, with Daniele De Rossi tasked with shielding their back four, and very dangerous on the counterattack. We can expect Balotelli and Cassano to start up front in the final.
Possible Starting Lineups
SPAIN: Casillas, Arbeloa, Pique, Ramos, Alba, Busquets, Alonso, Xavi, Iniesta, Silva, Fabregas
ITALY: Buffon, Chiellini, Balzaretti, Barzagli, Bonucci, Marchisio, De Rossi, Pirlo, Montolivo, Balotelli, Cassano
Spain and Italy have played 26 competitive matches in total (as per FIFA), with eight wins for Italy, seven for Spain and 11 draws.
Recent Major Tournament Meetings
- Spain 1-1 Italy, Euro 2012 Group C
- Spain 0-0 Italy (Spain won on pens), Euro 2008 quarterfinal
- Italy 2-1 Spain, World Cup 1994 quarterfinal
Everything points to the final being extremely tight. Both sides are well organized defensively and unlikely to concede much space in midfield—where I expect the match to be decided.
Who will triumph?
In a game of small margins, I'm picking Italy to cause an upset. Spain haven't been at their best at Euro 2012, and based on Italy's performance against Germany I think they come into the game with the greater momentum.
Unsurprisingly, I think Pirlo will be key to their success. Spain are unlikely to assign a man to mark him, and that will leave the 33-year-old with time and space to plot their downfall. If Italy can catch Spain on the break, they have a strike pair in Balotelli and Cassano who can punish them.
I see Italy winning it 1-0.
Where to Follow It
The Euro 2012 final will be live on ESPN in the U.S., with kickoff set for 2:45 p.m. Eastern on Sunday. We'll be providing a live blog to accompany their coverage and the usual array of preview and reaction comment.