Passmasters face gutsy Italians in Kiev.
Two years ago in South Africa, Italy faced one of the greatest humiliations in their illustrious history, finishing botton of a World Cup group that also included lowly New Zealand. Two years later, Cesar Prandelli’s men are on the verge of a claiming an against-the-odds European Championship title.
Standing in their way are holders and World Champions Spain, who are aiming for an unprecedented third consecutive major title.
Team news: Ignazio Abate should be fit, meaning a defensive reshuffle with Leonardo Bonucci dropping to the bench. Maverick forwards Mario Balotelli and Antonio Cassano are both expected to start.
Journey to final: After a highly credible 1-1 draw with Spain in their opening match, Italy were disappointing in the second half against Croatia, allowing Slaven Bilic’s side back into the game with 1-1 again the outcome. The Italians rallied to see off their own Giovanni Trapattoni’s Ireland, before deservedly triumphing on penalties against England, where Andrea Pirlo caught Europe’s attention with a timeless display. They saved their best for the semi-finals, dispatching a heavily fancied German side 2-1 after a Mario Balotelli masterclass.
One to watch: Andrea Pirlo. Girly name he may have, but the midfield metronome has been imperious thus far. He gave England the run around in the quarters (not hard, we know) but then did the same to the much fancied Germans. He’s so good, he hasn’t been on the losing side since December 2010 apparently! Wow.
Soundbite: “Shameful Italy… One of our ugliest national teams ever… the end of a generation and an illusion… we were champions of the world and now are the laughing stock of the world.” Some of the headlines in Italy that greeted the Azzuri’s 2010 World Cup exit, just two years ago.
Stat attack: The Azzurri have won only two of their last eight games (excluding shoot-outs).
What to expect: With Pirlo pulling the strings and wildcards Balotelli and Cassano up front, Italy are more than capable of causing another upset.
Team news: Vicente del Bosque must decide whether to stick with Alvaro Negredo up-front or revert to a striker-less formation, with Cesc Fabregas coming in.
Journey to final: After drawing with Italy, Spain thrashed hapless Ireland but needed a fortunate late goal in a nervy final group game against Croatia. A disappointing France side were comfortably seen off by a Xabi Alonson double in the quarters before an out-of-sorts Spain beat Portugal on penalties in the semi-final. Hardly vintage stuff so far but that could be ominous for the Italians.
One to watch: Andres Inietsa. The Barcelona schemer has been at his dazzling best in these finals, despite frequently being surrounded by about 8 opposition players. He has a useful habit of scoring important goals for club and country, as Chelsea and Netherlands fans can testify.
Soundbite: “We will play with three strikers.” Spain boss Vicente del Bosque. Hold on…haven’t you been playing with none up until now?
Stat attack: Spain are unbeaten in 11 European Championship finals matches, a new record. Their last loss in the competition was the 1-0 defeat to Portugal at Euro 2004.
What to expect: Spain are not going to change no matter how much criticism is heaped upon their style of play. Expect them to pass their way to victory.
Fancy a flutter? Before the finals you’d have got long odds on Italy claiming the crown and even longer ones on Spain to be widely panned as boring…