Euro 2012 finals preview: Spain vs Italy
MANILA, Philippines - After a month of the best national team football Europe can offer, reining Euro and World Cup champions Spain meet Italy in the final on Sunday, July 1 in Kiev, Ukraine.
Both sides are unbeaten in the tournament, and the only point they dropped was when they played each other in the first game of Group C, which ended in a 1-1 draw.
As in that match, Spain is now the favorite after the two consecutive trophies lifted in 2008 and 2010, but La Roja has been a minor disappointment in Euro 2012 for some of their fans, who view this squad as less exciting than before.
Italy, on the other hand, did not expect to go this far, and few expected Cesare Prandelli's men to pull off the biggest upset of the tournament when they beat Germany 2-1 in the semifinal.
Precisely the outstanding performance against the Germans leaves the Azzurri as the side which enters the final in slightly better form.
Less dominant Spain
After decades of underperforming in major competitions, Spain discovered in 2008 that the passing game long practiced by FC Barcelona in La Liga was not only beautiful but it could also be effective in winning titles.
That year, La Roja established the dominance of "small" players such as Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta and David Silva, which snagged them the Euro title.
The key was to keep possession of the ball and create chance after chance to score while not disregarding the defense, a longtime Achilles heel for the Spanish.
South Africa 2010 saw Spain win its first ever World Cup with most of the same players from the Euro squad and notable additions like Gerard Pique, Sergio Busquets and Xabi Alonso in a starting role in midfield.
In Euro 2012, manager Vicente del Bosque has gotten creative and is bent on playing most games without a traditional striker, leaving the #9 position for Cesc Fabregas, who can score but is not a center-forward.
The strategy has worked with mixed results: Spain has advanced but is now unable to create as many chances as before, as the passing game rarely ventures close to the box and the wingers have no one they can send their crosses to.
Del Bosque has also insisted on not fielding a tall striker like Fernando Llorente, much to the frustration of the Spanish press.
New and improved Italy
Italy -- and this is unexpected -- now also wants possession of the ball, under the direction of veteran Juventus playmaker Andrea Pirlo, arguably the best midfielder of the tournament.
Prandelli keeps a strong and organized defense, but it is no longer a tactical catenaccio.
That does not mean they have forgotten how to manage a a favorable score and let the clock run, as they proved successfully against Germany after Mario Balotelli's first goal off an Antonio Cassano cross.
Leading 1-0, the Italians were able to null the frenetic German pace while still looking for a chance to widen their lead, and did so precisely when Pirlo found an open space in the shaky rival defense for Balotelli to net his second.
Prandelli has surprised many by being possibly the first coach to reign in Super Mario, a known prima donna who refuses to celebrate his goals and before the start of the tournament seemed more concerned about racism then football.
Italy has performed so well that the fans even see many resemblances with the World Cup winning squad in Germany 2006, despite the absence of a natural leader like Fabio Cannavaro was six years ago.
Spain wants to make history
After everyone had been preparing for a final showdown between Spain and Germany, Italy's presence could be a mixed blessing for La Roja.
Players like keeper Iker Casillas and defender Sergio Ramos have reiterated they will not let their guard down, and pointed to how the Azzurri almost beat them in the first game, when Italy fielded a 3-5-2 formation and was well in control until Fabregas equalized.
Casillas and Ramos have been phenomenal so far, and Ramos even had the nerve to take his penalty Panenka-style in Wednesday, June 27's shootout when he chipped Portugal goalkeeper Rui Patricio after a goal-less draw.
With their help, Spain wants to become the first team in football history to win 3 major championships in a row.
Germany came close in 1976, but Antonin Panenka's cheeky penalty kick gave Czechoslovakia the title, while Italy has not won the Euro since 1968 and have failed to build on their 2006 World Cup winning squad.
All is set for a great final, with all the elements for a memorable clash between the Spanish passing game and the Italian structure and defense.
Rappler pick: Spain - Rappler.com