Sunday, July 1st—the day that Euro 2012 comes to a close with Italy and Spain set to do battle as they bid to become the champions of Europe. Influential, experienced and technically superb players are in plentiful on both sides, but one clash in the centre of the park will, more than any other, perhaps, produce the biggest indication of just who will be lifting the trophy at full time.
Xavi Hernandez of Spain versus Andrea Pirlo of Italy.
The last two winners of the FIFA World Cup (Spain 2010, Italy 2006) met in the group stages of this year's tournament and fought out a 1-1 draw in their opening match, as both sought to make early headway toward the knockout phase, but neither was willing to risk losing all three points to a big rival.
It made for an entertaining, tactical and exciting clash at the time—but the stakes are much, much bigger this time around.
Here are five reasons why Xavi vs. Pirlo is the key duel in the Euro 2012 final.
Here are Xavi's pass completion rates for each game so far in Euro 2012:
90%, 93%, 90%, 97%, 97%
He has amassed a quite phenomenal total of 473 completed passes out of a total of 509 attempted—a tournament-long pass completion percentage of 93.
Forget whether it's short, long, first-time or after holding onto the ball for 10 seconds, backwards, sideways or forwards—that level of consistency is very, very rarely found at the highest level of football.
This from a player who has been criticised as not being at the top of his game.
And Andrea Pirlo?
82%, 82%, 92%, 88%, 92%.
Over Italy's entire campaign, 321 of his 366 passes have found their mark—an 88 percent pass completion rate.
These two guys control the game for their sides; every build-up passage of play passes through them, and they are the go-to men when the team needs a moment of composure under pressure or to start the whole attack process again.
Stats courtesy of FourFourTwo Stats Zone.
Andrea Pirlo in Italy's victorious 2006 World Cup campaign.
With over 200 international caps between them, Xavi having a couple of dozen more so far, the international experience between these two giants of the midfield world is vast indeed.
Both of them have tasted victory wearing the colours of their country too; Pirlo was involved in Italy's 2006 World Cup win, while Xavi has been a mainstay of the Spanish side through Euro 2008 and World Cup 2010 triumphs.
Pirlo and Xavi will both relish the chance to add another piece of major silverware to their list of achievements, which for Xavi currently stands at 17 honours, and for Pirlo, 10.
Honours counted include domestic league titles and cup wins, European/World club trophy wins and international tournament wins. Domestic "super cups" excluded.
The midfield battle might not be *quite* this close in the final
While for Italy, Andrea Pirlo will operate slightly deeper at times than the other three midfielders—likely Montolivo, De Rossi and Marchisio—to make use of the extra space afforded in front of his defence, Xavi Hernandez will be deployed further forward for Spain.
Not ostensibly an attacking midfielder by choice, Xavi gets the role ahead of Spain's two deeper-lying players, Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets, to get the most out of his sharp and incisive—not to mention accurate—passing and his vision, along with his ability to link up with Barcelona teammates Cesc Fabregas and Andres Iniesta.
As a result, the two will come into contact frequently, and likely, both will be expected to close down the other—to stop them producing their best results—when in possession.
Who does this defensive duty best may dictate the outcome of the game, or at least, the number of good opportunities to attack goal that each team has.
Gigi Buffon and Iker Casillas will lead out their respective nations on Sunday in Kyiv as captains.
Not often do both finalists have a goalkeeper as captain, but on this occasion, it will be so—and with over 250 international caps between them, who can argue?
Xavi and Pirlo, regardless of not wearing an armband, will both be leaders, organisers, talkers and encouragers on the pitch as the key outfield players for their teams.
Tactically, they will both know exactly of what's expected from every player in red or blue, and both will be making sure that—as well as their own game being in order—every teammate is up to scratch too.
Only one goal has been scored at Euro 2012 directly from a free kick—a fine, curling effort from Italy's own Andrea Pirlo in the group stage match against Croatia.
While his dead-ball prowess has already been shown, Xavi is also a master at efforts from set pieces from just outside the penalty area, and he, as well as Pirlo at the other end, will have his eye on any free kicks awarded within 25 yards of goal.
Both are also fine deliverers of corners too, though, both teams can boast several players (Montolivo, de Rossi, Alonso, Iniesta) who can equally deliver from the wide areas when needed.
If the game should go to penalties, expect both of these seasoned stalwarts to step up and take one with nerves of steel and no shortage of technique.
Whichever midfield maestro ends up on the winning team will have shown themselves worthy, during the Final itself and the tournament as a whole, of being a European champion.
It should be a fascinating dual between Xavi and Pirlo—let the game commence.