The stage is set…Will Spain pull off the miraculous feat of winning three major tournaments in a row, or will the Italian underdogs continue their amazing rise?
The Italians have upset the odds already, and at 15/1 before the tournament the Azurri are looking like a great bet.
The Spanish haven’t looked at their scintillating best this time around, and Cesare Prandelli’s men have looked a lot more dangerous than people had anticipated.
Here are all the stats, facts and key battles for the game...
Andrea Pirlo v Xavi
Andrea Pirlo is undoubtedly the form player for Italy and has been awarded the man of the match award a staggering three times this tournament. The veteran midfielder has been pulling the strings to great effect for the Azurri since the start of the competition. No side has felt it necessary to man mark the skillful playmaker, but they have all played the price. Xavi, like his opposite man, has been running the show for Spain, dictating play with his precision passing. The Spaniard has strung 465 successful passes to Pirlo’s 320. Both are legends of the game and their performances may determine the outcome of the game.
Cesc Fabregas v Leonardo Bonucci
It is difficult to know what line-up or formation Vincent del Bosque will play on Sunday evening, but after a disappointing performance from Alvaro Negredo against Portugal it is likely Cesc Fabregas will start in the “fake No.9” position. Cesc has scored two goals this tournament and has always looked threatening when he is on the field. Scoring the winning penalty against Portugal may just give him the confidence to put in a match-winning performance in the final. Leonardo Bonucci will have to have his wits about him if he is to deal with the incessant movement of Spain’s midfield maestros. Fabregas is an intelligent footballer and will inevitably find space in behind the backline for one of his like-minded colleagues to slip him the killer ball. The Italian may have his hands full and will have to play out of his skin to keep the Spanish at bay.
Mario Balotelli v Gerard Pique
Mario Balotelli was in spectacular form in Italy’s semi-final with Germany. The striker was strong when holding up the ball and the German defence didn’t know how to deal with his movement, as was seen with both of his goals. The 21-year-old is infamous for his unpredictability, but he has grown in stature and seems to have matured since his side’s opening clash of the tournament with Spain. Gerard Pique was part of a Spanish defence that kept out an in-form Ronaldo in the semi-final, but at times looked unusually shaky when put under pressure. ‘Super Mario’ spent large parts of the semi-final hassling the German centre-backs so Pique will have to show more composure. He will need to be alert to Balotelli’s movement and be prepared for a physical battle because if the big striker gets any space he will surely not be caught dawdling as he was by Sergio Ramos in the first clash between the two sides.
Andres Iniesta v Claudio Marchisio
Claudio Marchisio put in a top-notch performance against Germany, passing the ball well and demonstrating high energy levels when harrying the opposition midfield. His role will be crucial for Italy in the final as he closes down the Spanish and tries to break up their hypnotic passing game. His main concern will be Andres Iniesta. The attacking midfielder is one of the hardest players in the world to mark, thanks to his intelligent movement, and was the only player to really cause Italy problems when the two sides met in the group stages. In order to nullify the main strength of Spain’s attack, Marchisio will have to work hard to track Iniesta and not allow him to slip into the pockets of space he can so devastatingly exploit.
THE STORY SO FAR…
Spain finished top of Group C. Their opening game was a 1-1 draw with the Italians followed by a 4-0 hammering of Ireland. Their last group game was a less than convincing 1-0 victory over Croatia. In the quarter finals they dispatched an unimpressive French side 2-0, before overcoming neighbours Portugal in the semi-final on penalties.
Italy were runners-up in Group C behind Spain. Despite suffering pre-tournament set backs and it being suggested they had a week team, Cesare Prandelli’s men put in an impressive performance in their opening game, drawing 1-1 with Spain. Their second game was a 1-1 draw with Croatia and their progression to the knockout rounds was secured with a 2-0 win over Ireland. In the quarter finals Italy beat England on penalties and then in the semi-finals they gave a superb performance to overcome hotly favoured Germany 2-1.
STATS AND FACTS…
The top three players for each side at the tournament so far, according to the official Euro 2012 Castrol ratings:
Italy: Mario Balotelli 9.38, Claudio Marchisio 9.33, Gianluigi Buffon 9.02
Spain: Gerard Pique 9.54, Xabi Alonso 9.48, Andres Iniesta 9.43
Mario Balotelli has had 14 attempts on target, the most of the two sides.
Andres Iniesta is close behind on 13, although the Spaniard hasn’t hit the back of the net yet while Balotelli has scored three.
Spain, unsurprisingly, dominate the passing statistics, with three of the top four playing for Los Rojas. Xavi tops the charts with 455 completed passes at a pass completion percentage of 85 per cent. Xabi Alonso is second with 416 passes at 83 per cent.
Andrea Pirlo is third in the charts having completed 354 passes with a pass completion percentage of 77 per cent.
If Mario Balotelli can add to his goal tally he could very well win the Golden Boot outright. At the moment he is tied level with several other players on three.
Spain have three players on two goals: Cesc Fabregas, Xabi Alonso and Fernando Torres. If Fabregas does start in his “false striker” role he will surely be looking to add to his tally and compete with Balotelli.
David Silva leads the assist charts with three while Andrea Pirlo is just behind him on two.
DID YOU KNOW…
If Spain win, they will equal Germany's record of three European titles. Spain won the second Euro tournament in 1964 and the last one in 2008.
Italy's only previous European title was as hosts in 1968 when they beat Yugoslavia in the final.
The European final has never been decided by a penalty shootout in 13 previous tournaments. The last two finals were decided by a solitary goal - Greece beat hosts Portugal 1-0 in 2004 and Spain beat Germany 1-0 four years ago in Vienna.
Spain have met Italy seven times before in major tournaments and never managed an outright win. Their only success was in a penalty shootout at Euro 2008 in the quarter-finals following a 0-0 draw. The two met in the group stage at this tournament and drew 1-1.
If Mario Balotelli, who slotted two goals in Italy's 2-1 semi-final victory over Germany, finds the net again he could take home the golden boot award with four goals. Balotelli shares the lead on three goals with Alan Dzagoev of Russia, Mario Gomez of Germany, Mario Mandzukic of Croatia and Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal.
The only player to score against Spain in this tournament is Italy's Antonio Di Natale, who came on as a second half substitute in the group game and found the net within five minutes.
Italy have lost only two of their last 19 matches outright at European Championships. Those losses were in the 2000 final when they went down 2-1 to France in extra time, and a 3-0 loss to the Netherlands in a 2008 group game. They went out on penalties to Spain in the quarter-finals that year after a 0-0 draw.
Spain have never defeated Italy in regulation time in a major tournament.
Spain have enjoyed 66.8 per cent average possession in their matches, Italy 53.2 per cent.
Italy leads the tally for shots on goal with 99 against Spain’s 87 but the latter with 36 shots, has 6 more shots on target.
Italy have not trailed for a single minute in Euro 2012.