Italy's comprehensive 2-1 victory over heavily favored Germany was a most unexpected event, the way Ned Stark's execution was on "Game of Thrones." Germany approached the semifinal with the swagger of a team that had won 15 consecutive games, but the Italians never cowered.
Manager Cesare Prandelli’s team flooded the midfield, dictated the pattern of play, and took its chances. The Germans, who had provided the tournament with some of its most potent soccer, wilted as Andrea Pirlo jogged around, creating at his own pace, and Riccardo Montolivo broke up the German transition game with aplomb.
Mario Balotelli’s barnstorming brace stole the headlines, but deft defensive performances by Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini, as well as Gigi Buffon’s swashbuckling goalkeeping display, nullified the Germans. Even though Joachim Low’s team dominated the territorial battle down the flanks in the second half, it was unable to drag itself back into the game.
The Italians will remember 2012 alongside 2006, 1982 and 1970 as years in which they won famous victories against Germany. Low’s side departs with the scant consolation of knowing its squad was the youngest at this tournament and still has great days to come.
The Italians march into Sunday’s final against defending champion Spain, which has never beaten Italy at a competitive tournament. Italy has landed three wins; four other games ended in a draw. Yet the focus ahead of the final in Kiev will be Spain’s attempt to become the first national side to win three consecutive major trophies, a superlative achievement that has demanded sustained commitment, focus and fortitude.
Spain coach Vicente Del Bosque predicted a “great game.” The 1-1 draw the two sides fought out in the group stage only serves to make the prospect even more compelling.
The final will feature two sides intent on going toe-to-toe, battling to snap their passing triangles around the midfield. The vaunted Spaniards may be reluctant to share the ball, but as Prandelli made clear ahead of the semifinal, his team will shy away from no one.
“We may win and we may lose, but Italian sides always want to play football,” he proclaimed.
The final will be no different. Expect Prandelli’s team to believe its slick passing, quarterbacked by Pirlo, can dictate the tempo of play, even in the face of Spain’s inimitable possession game. Pirlo completed 60 of his 65 passes (92.3 percent) in the semifinal and has improved his passing percentage in each of his past three matches.
Both England and Germany knew they had to stop the wily Italian. Both were unable to do so.
The Balotelli factor
Balotelli’s emphatic second goal against Germany put an exclamation point on a roller-coaster campaign that began with him publicly grappling with the specter of racism at the tournament, then saw him benched. On Sunday, he will be the one in-form striker on the field, and Italy will need his full attention. Spain has not leaked a goal in a tournament elimination round since 2006.
The Spaniards have struggled without a striker for the whole tournament, either intentionally with their “false nine” formation, or less so by fielding Fernando Torres or Álvaro Negredo up top.
Whom will Del Bosque field to combat the muscular athleticism of Leonardo Bonucci, Giorgio Chiellini and Andrea Barzagli? Negredo floundered against Portugal, resembling a man eager to break-dance when everyone else was doing the Macarena. Spain then dominated extra time against Portugal thanks to the direct running of Cesc Fabregas Pedro and Jesus Navas, but without a real target man, La Roja risk monopolizing possession but lacking the ability to break down their opponent’s defense.
Fatigue could play a big role in the match. Both teams repeatedly have articulated concerns about the physical demands of the tournament. Antonio Cassano was able to last just 58 minutes in the semifinal. Chiellini and Daniele De Rossi both are playing hurt, and playmaker Pirlo has faded toward the end of games.
The Spaniards enter the match after gutting out a physically and psychologically grueling semifinal against Portugal on penalty kicks. Midfield maestro Xavi, who has looked out of sorts all tournament, was substituted because he was tired. His performance was symbolic of Spain’s off-kilter display during regulation. La Roja’s passing game appeared scratchy as players lacked their typical touch and control. Heavy legs normally suggest late goals. The final may come down to whichever team has the most fuel left in the tank.
There may be shots aplenty – but will there be goals?
The game will showcase a pair of goalkeepers widely respected as the best in the world, Spain’s Iker Casillas and Italy's Buffon. Both men captain their teams, and are a fascinating contrast in styles.
Casillas relies on his speed and intelligent positioning. Buffon is an instinctual shot-stopper who plays as if he has been practicing his hi-def, slo-mo close-up faces in the mirror. Casillas rarely betrays his emotion even when coming up big in the penalty shootout; Buffon thrives off passion. Just watch him sing the Italian national anthem before kickoff. No man alive loves his country’s song as he does.
Defending champion Spain are attempting to make history. The Italians, beleaguered by spiraling domestic match-fixing charges, are desperate to erase some of theirs. We will have to wait until Sunday to discover which human motivation -- glory or shame -- proves to be more powerful.
Roger Bennett is a contributing writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter @rogbennett.