EURO 2012

On the verge of greatness

Mario Balotelli and Andrea Pirlo’s Italy stand between Spain and a record third consecutive major tournament win

Against the odds, it will be Italy, not Germany, who stands in the way of Spain and a record third successive major international tournament win in Kiev Sunday.

The matchup for the Euro 2012 final brings the tournament full circle. The two old rivals played out a 1-1 tie in their first match of the competition and the Azzurri remains the only team to score against the Spanish since.

This much was never expected of an Italian team, which began its campaign rocked by a league match-fixing scandal that saw coach Cesare Prandelli drop defender Domenico Criscito from his squad. But, abandoning its traditional defensive style for a more attacking approach, with pass master Andrea Pirlo at its center, it has emerged as a subtle and clever side in Poland-Ukraine, culminating with Thursday’s 2-1 defeat of Germany. Perhaps worryingly for Spain, it all rather smacks of 2006, when Italy was similarly hit by the Calciopoli match-rigging scandal and went on to win the 2006 World Cup, beating Germany in the semis.

There’s also another man on the scene: Mario Balotelli. Muted in the opening games, with just a solitary goal against Ireland, the temperamental Manchester City striker scored both goals against Germany, the second a rocket that warranted a shirtless celebration that earned him a booking but also a European Championship moment to be remembered.

“He is a threat, as is Cassano,” said Cesc Fàbregas.

It is Pirlo, though, of whom Spain is most wary. “He is the leading figure,” said Sergio Ramos. “He makes the difference and brings the dominance and the control of the game.”

Spain certainly has the means to stop him. More than its stylish offense, this time round it’s the defense that has contributed most to it reaching its fifth major final. The conservative approach has earned Vicente del Bosque criticism, but also brought him to the verge of an unprecedented achievement. “We feel proud of what is happening,” said the coach. “To achieve what nobody has achieved would be good for Spanish soccer and also for the country.”

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