Spain wants to make European football history, while Italy is lurking for another upset in the Euro 2012 final, which brings together the last two world champions
Andres Iniesta is in the heart of Spain’s intricate style of play without traditional strikers, while Andrea Pirlo is putting on classic performances as a playmaker running Italy’s game in the tournament. AFP Photo
Italy is standing in way of Spain, who hopes to make football history with third consecutive international title.
The two teams will meet in the Euro 2012 final on July 1 at the Olympic Stadium in Kiev, where the last two world champions will battle for the European title.
Spain is just one victory away from making history and securing its reputation as perhaps the greatest national side ever.
Spain labored to a penalty shootout win over Portugal to reach Sunday’s final, where only Italy can keep it from winning a third straight major tournament - an unprecedented feat between World Cup and continental competitions.
“Hopefully we can achieve what nobody else has achieved,” coach Vicente del Bosque said. “This would be great for everyone: for Spanish football and for our country as a whole.
“These are signs of progress taking place in Spanish sports, and hopefully it will carry over into society as well,” Del Bosque added.
The record run is on course even if Spain’s attack hasn’t exactly lived up to high expectations, with the team’s ability to grind out results becoming its trademark in Poland and Ukraine.
Spain is the only side apart from West Germany to have reached three straight finals, and the team can go one better than that West German
side from the 1970s with a victory in Kiev.
“Spain has already made history and now we continue making it,” captain Iker Casillas said. “I hope people remember this all their lives because who would have thought we could achieve this four years ago.”
While Spain’s playing the final was largely expected, Italy’s making its way to the final could be considered a surprise. The idea of Italy reaching Euro 2012 final in Kiev would have been laughed at in the piazzas and pizzerias of Rome and Milan a month ago but now Cesare Prandelli’s side are there against all the odds.
The 2-1 semifinal win over Germany stunned not just Joachim Löw’s side but the Italian nation itself.
A 3-0 friendly defeat by Russia
and yet another match-fixing affair which robbed the Azzurri of left back Domenico Criscito just before the tournament were not ideal preparations for a side who never expected to challenge for the title anyway.
However, Italians often thrive in adversity as seen in 1982 and 2006 when they won the World Cup, and beat Germany along the way, following domestic betting and cheating scandals.
They have now gone through a difficult group, which included final opponents and holders Spain, played England off the park before winning the quarterfinal on penalties and beaten in-form and free-scoring Germany with a clinical yet flamboyant display.
“We are living the dream with millions of Italians,” said defender Giorgio Chiellini after Mario Balotelli’s double extended Germany’s record of never beating Italy in a major tournament.
“We will enjoy this victory a little then our thoughts turn to Sunday and we want to continue this dream.”
Having matched Spain for long spells in their 1-1 Group C opener, the Azzurri will not be afraid of the world champions while Balotelli finding the net in such emphatic style will also give Italy fans confidence.
Apart from a superb volleyed goal against Ireland, Balotelli had missed an array of chances with critics wondering whether all the hype surrounding his wacky persona had covered up his failings as a footballer.
Germany now knows all too well that on his day he can be a top performer, even if his opening header had much to do with Antonio Cassano’s deft trickery and cross.
Prankster Cassano has had a tough year after recovering from heart surgery and still cannot complete a match, but he is Prandelli’s joker in both senses of the word and that one bit of skill made all the difference.
Balotelli, in a ridiculous amount of space, then blasted in a second goal before the break with a swing of the boot that could easily have gone wide on another day.
This was Balotelli’s match, however, as he gave the perfect riposte to opposition fans who have racially abused him at this tournament and the Gazzetta dello Sport newspaper which printed an ill-advised cartoon of him depicted as King Kong.
“This was the best night of my life,” Balotelli said. “But I hope Sunday will be better. I hope to score four goals not two.”
Cesc Fabregas says that Spain will need to pay special attention to Balotelli in the final.
“Balotelli is a great player,” the Barcelona midfielder said on June 29. “He showed that yesterday by scoring two superb goals in a semi-final against a very strong team like Germany.
“He’ll be a threat, just like (Antonio) Cassano and the other strikers.”
Asked to assess Italy’s key strengths, Fabregas said that Cesare Prandelli’s side possessed dangerous players in every area of the pitch.
“They have a very competitive team,” he said. “They are very experienced at the back and up front, and they have players who had excellent seasons for teams like AC Milan, Inter Milan and Juventus.”
Having already played a starring role in the successes at Euro 2008 and the 2010 World Cup, Fabregas says he continues to draw inspiration from the dedication of the country’s supporters.
“The players are lucky to have a country behind us that loves football,” he said. “It’s a great pleasure for us to transmit joy to the fans who support us.
“The fans have been coming out onto the streets in Spain after our matches, and there are fans who have travelled to Ukraine
despite all the logistical difficulties with transport.
“It’s fantastic to have the whole country behind us. We have great faith in the fans, and we hope the fans have faith in us.
“The aim of the players here is to continue to write history.”
Compiled from AP, AFP and Reuters reports by the Daily News staff
Facts and figures
* If Spain wins, it will equal Germany’s record of three European titles. Spain won the second Euro tournament in 1964 and the last one in 2008. It was also losing finalist to host France in 1984.
* Italy’s only previous European title was as host in 1968 when the team beat Yugoslavia in the final. It was also runner-up in 2000 when it lost 2-1 to France on a golden goal in extra time.
* 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 has met Italy seven times before in major tournaments and never managed an outright win.
* Nine of the 14 Spanish players who appeared in the 2008 final are in the current squad - Iker Casillas, Sergio Ramos, Xabi Alonso, Xavi, Andres Iniesta, David Silva, Cesc Fabregas, Santi Cazorla and goal-scorer Fernando Torres.
* Four of the six Spanish players who were voted on UEFA’s team of the 2008 tournament are missing. Defender Carles Puyol and the 2008 finals top scorer David Villa are absent through injury. Carlos Marchena and Marcos Senna are no longer in the squad. The two survivors are Casillas and Xavi.
* Spain is unbeaten in 19 competitive matches, of which it has won 17.
* Spain has conceded only eight goals in that run of 19 games and have kept clean sheets in their last four games at this tournament.
* Italy has lost only two of its last 19 matches outright at Euro finals. Apart from the 2000 final when it lost 2-1 to France in extra time, its only other defeat was 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.