Italy take on reigning European Champions Spain on Sunday in the final of the Euro 2012. The Spanish come in as favorites, but the Italians have surprised many and have already held Spain to a draw in the group phase.
The Italians hold the upper hand in their head-to-head record against the Spanish, but La Roja's world class midfield has seen them go undefeated in their last 19 competitive games. Spain have the chance to make history, becoming the first team to win three successive major international tournaments.
Reaching the final
The Italians shocked Germany Thursday night, advancing to the final with a decisive 2-1 victory.
"It is already one of the epic games in the history of Italian football," CNN Italian correspondent and Gazzetto dello Sport columnist Tancredi Palmeri told DW. "Nobody could honestly doubt who deserved to get through."
Cesare Prandelli called it his biggest win as coach of the Italian team. "I am very proud of this team, they are very good players," he said after the game. "We have no time to celebrate. All we need to do is concentrate on the next game, which is the most important one of the entire tournament."
Spain come into the game after a hard-fought win on penalties against Portugal. Spaniards "are all getting very excited and looking forward to making history at the weekend," said Dermot Corrigan, a Madrid-based journalist who works for the Irish Examiner newspaper, in an interview with DW. "It's party time here."
According to Corrigan, the Spanish public were not necessarily expecting their team to win the tournament, but upon reaching the final, that belief has changed. "At this stage I think if they don't [win], then people will be disappointed and even [Coach Vicente de Bosque] might start to face more criticism," he said.
The Spanish remain somewhat wary of the Italian team, despite keeping a clean sheet in their last nine tournament knockout games. They allowed their only goal of the tournament thus far in their 1-1 group stage draw against Italy.
"Older people who remember Spain before 2008, who grew up watching the Spain team who flattered to deceive, are worried about Italy," said Corrigan. Before their victory on penalties in the quarterfinals of Euro 2008, Spain had not beaten Italy in a competitive game since the 1920 Olympics.
After surprising Italy at the last European Championship, things have changed. The younger generation in Spain feels more confident about their team. "They've overcome that kind of historical inferiority complex that they had, and they can go and beat Italy," said Corrigan.
Players to watch
In their victory over Portugal, Barcelona midfielder Xavi was substituted in the 87th minute. It was his first time being substituted this tournament, and after an average of 66 games per season over the last four years, the 32-year-old's tired legs might be catching up to him.
"Del Bosque said after the game that it was one of the hardest decisions that he's had to make as a coach to remove Xavi, especially because he knew he was likely to be playing 30 minutes of extra time at that stage," said Corrigan, who added that it was unlikely the midfielder will play the full 90 minutes on Sunday.
For the final, Spain may alter their lineup. The second half additions of Pedro and Jesus Navas against the Portuguese on Wednesday proved positive. "We created more problems for them introducing these players on the pitch," said del Bosque after the game.
Italian striker Mario Balotelli scored both goals in the victory over Germany. There is "Balotelli fever" in Italy at the moment, said Palermi, calling him the biggest pain in the middle of the German defense.
The Manchester City striker will be the player to watch in the final. "Coming from last night's game he is bound to be full of confidence," said Corrigan. Spanish center backs Gerard Pique and Sergio Ramos are prone to the odd lapse in concentration. "If something like that happens [in the final] then Balotelli could punish them," he said.
Predicting the final
After entering the game against Germany with nothing to fear, Italy are in high spirits going into the final. "When you are there, you are there," said Palmeri. "It's hard to calm down the fire."
The key for Italy in stopping the Italians will be pressure, and "putting them against the wall," said Palmeri. "If you give time to Spain to play their game, they will win."
The Spanish are considered favorites against Italy. Their ability to control possession and create chances has been impressive thus far in the tournament. "It is hard not to predict a clean sheet for them [in the final]," said Corrigan.
But the inspired Italians cannot be counted out. Though not considered favorites heading into the tournament, they have no doubt earned their spot on Europe's biggest stage. "In my opinion, the level of football they're playing despite all of their problems is one of the biggest surprises in decades," said Palmeri.
Author: David Raish
Editor: Mark Hallam