Cesc Fabregas leads Spain into the Euro 2012 Finals against Italy.
The thought of a first-round rematch in the finals of Euro 2012 was considered entirely plausible at the outset of the tournament three weeks ago, although most would have speculated that a title matchup would likely involve a pair of teams from the "Group of Death", otherwise known as Group B. Germany and Holland, perhaps. Maybe Germany and Portugal.
We have a rematch, alright, but instead it involves a pair from Group C, holders Spain (no surprise there) and Italy, whose presence in the finals of any international event should not come as a shock...except for this particular edition of the Azzurri, which some believed might not advance from group play and fewer still expected to have a chance at advancing to the Euro 2012 finale.
Shrewd football insiders, however, are not discounting Italy's chances in the Sunday decider at the National Stadium in Kiev, even though European oddsmakers have made Italia the decided underdog. The win price on Spain is at 6/5, with the take-back on Italy at 11/4, with draw prices at 21/10 for the 2:45 p.m. (ET) kickoff on Sunday, to be televised in the states by ESPN. (These prices reflect a 90-minute result, irrespective of overtime or a penalty-kick shootout.)
Indeed, the Azzurri made life difficult for Spain in the opening Group C match exactly three weeks ago, as Italian manager Cesare Prandelli flooded the midfield in an unorthodox 3-5-2 deployment that was designed to curb some of the noted Spain possession game. The tactic worked to a degree, Italy even forging a brief 1-0 lead in the second half before España leveled thanks to a Cesc Fabregas goal in the 64th minute.
In the end, Italy might have been fortunate to net a 1-1 draw, but the result seemed to forge a confidence that has begun to manifest as the tourney has progressed. Advancing to the knockout phase, Italy retained its composure in a frustrating quarterfinal vs. England before prevailing in a shootout, then being well worth a 2-1 semifinal win over Germany on Thursday, the only German goal the result of a dodgy handball call in the box during the final moments that preceded a Mesut Ozil spot-kick success.
The story for the Azzurri has been the emergence of a couple of heretofore unreliable components, AC Milan's Antonio Cassano and especially the precocious 21-year-old from Man City, Mario Balotelli, whose brace send the Germans packing on Thursday.
Prandelli's adroit handling of Balotelli, whom many believed might not even be included in the team for this tourney, has been one of the major storylines in Poland and Ukraine. Prandelli has also proven tactically shrewd, unafraid to roll the dice with different alignments and lineup combinations, all very un-Azzurri like and a clear departure from Marcelo Lippi's "good old boys" Juventus-centric side that crashed out of World Cup 2010 after the first round.
Prandelli has also been unafraid to pair three strikers (Balotelli, Cassano, and Udinese's Antonio Di Natale) at the same time, either.
Indeed, Prandelli's stewardship, reduced expectations, Balotelli's emergence, and the ability to circle the wagons after more match-fix allegations at home (similar to developments before World Cup 2006, and we remember what happened six years ago when Italy won the whole thing) makes the Azzurri difficult to discount.
Spain has not had it easy lately vs. Italy, either, not only in that 1-1 draw on June 10, but a nervous penalty shootout vs. a decidedly average Azzurri in the quarterfinal stage of Euro 2008. Spain won that one thanks to heroics from GK Iker Casillas and the aforementioned Fabregas, who struck the deciding spot-kick, imbuing La Seleccion with a belief that it could indeed win one of these major events.
Importantly, in the nine knockout round games at Euro 2008, World Cup 2010, and thus far
at Euro 2012, Spain and Casillas have remarkably kept a clean sheet on each occasion, all starting with that 2008 shootout win over Italy.
Spain was flustered at times by Portugal in its semifinal before surviving again on PKs (thanks in part to Cristiano Ronaldo's tactical miscalculations), but we're not sure Italy can force such a high line defensively and pressure Xavi, Iniesta, and Xabi Alonso into mistakes as did the Portuguese. Even so, Spain's still controlled possession (57%-43%).
While Spain has missed injured Barcelona striker David Villa at the Euros, other viable scoring options have emerged, including a Fernando Torres sighting and Barcelona's Fabregas often providing a spark from the bench.
Moreover, we have seen Spain take chances with attacks from the flanks instead of simply trying to pick the opponent's locks down the middle with a dose of the tiki-taka passing game. Valencia's Jordi Alba, Barcelona's Pedro, and Sevilla's Jesus Navas have all on occasion wreaked real havoc from the wings, giving Espana some extra attacking bite in the final third.
And there is always Real Madrid's majestic Casillas as the last line of defense, perhaps the only goalie in this event we would rate slightly ahead of Italy's accomplished Gigi Buffon. It's not often two World Cup-winning goalies face off in an international final, and we rate the slightest of edges to Spain in this matchup of top-notch stoppers.
Granted, Balotelli remains the ultimate X-factor, capable of turning a match on its ear, as Germany found out. But "the new" Spain is made of much sterner stuff than the sides which routinely failed on the big stage prior to 2008. Now, España is on the cusp of history as the first side to win three international tournaments in a row. It might not come easily, but in the end, we expect Spain gets its tercera vez on Sunday.