After 30 games, 72 goals, three ejections, two penalty shootouts and a host of impressive performances, Euro 2012 is down to its final game at last. Although Sunday’s title decider between Spain and Italy isn’t quite the matchup most were expecting before the tournament started (that would have been Germany versus Spain), it still figures to be an enthralling encounter. The two teams played out an entertaining 1-1 draw during the group stage, and Sunday’s match figures to serve up more of the same.
Spain has been international soccer’s best side for the past four years, while Italy has rehabilitated itself since its poor showing at the 2010 World Cup. A host of the game’s best players will be on display as well, with Italy’s Andrea Pirlo and Mario Balotelli going up against the likes of Spain’s Andres Iniesta and Xavi. So with the most important match of the year approaching, here’s what else you need to know.
1. Spain’s date with history
La Roja have the opportunity to go down as the best international side in history. A win on Sunday in Kiev would give them titles in three consecutive major tournaments, something no nation has done. A victory also would give them a record-tying third European title, pulling them level with Germany. Yet Spain hasn’t exactly looked impressive along the way. Although it’s possession-based approach is as imposing as ever, it hasn’t necessarily translated into goals. Leave out La Roja’s 4-0 win over Ireland, and the team has tallied four times in four games, and needed penalties to subdue a game Portugal side. Of course, owning the ball does have its benefits on the defensive end, as Spain has recorded eight consecutive clean sheets in the knockout stages of major tournaments. The last time its goal was breached in a knockout game was in the round of 16 loss to France at the 2006 World Cup.
2. Italy’s obstacles
Speaking of 2006, it’s a case of déjà vu for the Azzurri. Back then, the effects of the Calciopoli match-fixing scandal were supposed to shatter Italy’s dreams of winning another World Cup. Instead, the team rallied and claimed its fourth world title. Six years later, Italy is reeling from another spasm of match-fixing allegations, and on this occasion, it even forced the removal of defender Domenico Criscito from the squad. But again, the Azzurri have managed to pull together and reach the final.
There have been other obstacles along the way as well. Injuries along the back line have forced manager Cesare Prandelli to use seven different defenders as well as two different tactical formations. But players such as goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, midfielder Daniele De Rossi and Pirlo have been the glue that has kept the Azzurri ticking over. And after the team’s impressive 2-1 semifinal win over Germany, its place in the final is well deserved.
3. A tale of two strike forces
Heading into Sunday’s final, the performance level of the respective front lines could not be more different. Of course, as it relates to Spain, some might say, “What front line?” Manager Vicente Del Bosque has at times used a false nine in Cesc Fabregas, with some calling it a 4-6-0 formation. To be fair, the Spain manager also has dabbled with using a more conventional forward such as Fernando Torres or Alvaro Negredo. Neither approach has seen Spain reach its peak, however. Torres has seemingly fallen out of favor after being an unused sub against Portugal, and while Spain has traditionally gotten plenty of goals from its midfield, there is a real concern about where the goals will come from in the final, especially after Portugal had success in the semi with its selective use of high pressure.
Italy, by contrast, has not one but two forwards approaching top form. Balotelli deservedly got the headlines in the semifinal. Not only were his two goals scored with aplomb, but his dynamic runs also stretched the German defense vertically. Balotelli’s partner in goals, Antonio Cassano, has done damage as well, dragging defenders out wide to create space for others as well as delivering pinpoint passes, like he did for Balotelli’s first goal in the semifinal. In a final where the teams are evenly matched in most parts of the field, the form of Balotelli and Cassano could tilt the game in Italy’s favor.
4. Spain – boring or brilliant? The debate rages
Once upon a time, Spain’s surgical precision was a joy to behold. Now, it’s as if the public has become anesthetized to La Roja’s extraordinary play. Spain has an average possession rate of 60 percent. The team is also averaging nearly 10 shots on goal per game, a rate that is second-best in the tournament and hardly indicative of a team that is struggling offensively. Iniesta has shown few signs of slowing down in this tournament, although Xavi and David Silva were less effective against Portugal. Perhaps it’s more a case of people expecting Spain to do more with the possession that it has, as the team has looked reluctant to shoot at times. Either way, there can be little quibbling with the results. Even as the semi against Portugal went to penalties, Spain was the stronger team at the end, its edge in possession eventually sapping the opposition of energy. We’ll see whether it proves to be the winning formula again on Sunday.
5. Peerless Pirlo
The Italian midfielder has only one goal in Euro 2012 – a gorgeous free kick against Croatia – but Pirlo’s contribution goes way beyond mere numbers, and he has been the player of the tournament so far. The Juventus man been unflappable on the ball in midfield, and his ability to control the game’s tempo has been invaluable to a side that isn’t exactly teeming with creative players. And his cold-blooded chip in the penalty shootout against England helped Italy seize the momentum and come out on top when it had fallen behind earlier. Pirlo will no doubt have his hands – and feet – full when he goes up against Spain’s potent midfield, but he’ll be a joy to watch no matter which side comes out on top.