Euro 2012 final: The ten players to watch
With the Euro 2012 final rapidly approaching, we look at 10 players you may or may not expect to perform during the 90 minutes - and possibly extra-time and penalties.
Though Xavi rightly takes much of the acclaim for his ability to control a game single-handily, Andres Iniesta has outshone his Barca compatriot at Euro 2012 with his consistently remarkable performances.
Already enamoured in Spain for scoring the winning goal in the World Cup final in 2010, there isn’t much Iniesta can do wrong right now. In fact he just keeps getting better. At times in this tournament, the other attacking players such as David Silva and Fernando Torres have looked fairly impotent, but Iniesta remains a constant threat.
His touch and control are second to absolutely none, and his inane ability to drift past players with continuous ease and pick out a pin-point pass, make him Spain’s deadliest weapon in their bid for glory.
Despite only making two substitute appearances so far in the tournament, the speedy winger has made a noticeable impact after coming on.
He added a glimmer of hope to the dismal watch that was Portugal v Spain, with his runs in behind the defence offering Spain an option they’d been lacking throughout most of the match; even with Alvaro Negredo leading the line.
Pedro has speed yes, but so does Jesus Navas; an option Vicente Del Bosque has preferred to the Barcelona man so far. But with his speed, Pedro brings the touch and poise that is inbred into those graduates of La Masia. Navas needs a striker, but Pedro has the added facet to fit more fluidly in to the false nine system.
This season though Pedro has spent much of his time on the side-lines leaving him looking ring rusty at points, particularly in front of goal. Don’t be surprised though if this young man from Tenerife changes the final should he make a late appearance.
Having played the majority of the season at Valencia as an attacking winger (his favoured position), Jordi Alba could have been forgiven for looking shaky playing in the left back position; particularly in a competition of this magnitude.
However, the 23-year-old Catalan has looked self-assured and impressive throughout the tournament. Alba is reliable defensively, but deadly when he’s storming down that left side.
Teams may have pointed him out as a weakness to target prior to facing Spain, but despite having to fill the hole left by the formidable Joan Capdevila, Alba has proven to be the more steadfast full back when contrasted to Real Madrid’s Alvaro Arbeloa.
His attacking nature can be exploited if he becomes too adventurous, but expect to see this player develop into one of the most impressive left backs in world football; especially since securing a dream move back to his boyhood club Barcelona.
Overshadowed by the abundance of attacking talent Spain have, it’s understandable why Sergio Busquets goes forgotten sometimes.
Having played every minute of Spain’s World Cup triumph and of Euro 2012 so far, the deep-lying midfielder is a favourite of Del Bosque and it’s easy to see why.
His energy and work rate are excellent, but more impressively his control and skill - especially for a man so much taller than most of his team mates – is as good as anyone’s in the team.
His job is simple, but he does it better than anyone. He may lack the creativity of Xavi, Iniesta or Xabi Alonso, but he should not be underestimated.
His capacity to keep the ball is outstanding but his positioning is his forte. Busquets reads the game so well he prohibits any dwelling on the ball by the opposition and could be the remedy Spain will need to the Pirlo problem.
Inevitably reliable from start to finish, the only way Sergi Busquets will be a let-down is to resort to his ‘I’ve hurt my face’ routine. Italy’s midfield will have to work a lot harder with him around.
For those who may not watch Spanish football regularly, it may be quite baffling to see a man considered one of the world’s best full backs suddenly slot in besides Gerard Pique in the centre.
Yet Sergio Ramos (pictured) has been playing there all season for Real Madrid and looks no worse off for it.
A sublimely gifted defender, Ramos’ natural interpretation of the game gives him the flexibility in a number of positions, but his long-term future probably lies at centre back.
Jose Mourinho prefers him there and it’s easy to see why. He is the captain of the defence and he regulates his back line troops with immense control; if Spain were trying to find a replacement for the Carles Puyol shaped hole that will soon be gracing them for good, they’ve almost certainly found it Ramos.
Though the Andalucian has had his run-ins with Pique in the past, the two have worked remarkably well together so far. Both have the ability to move with the ball at their feet and remain cool under pressure, and as a pair they have the opportunity to form an intimidating defence for Spain that can last many years.
If the Italians are to have any success against Spain, they’ll need to hope Ramos is having an off day.
Lauded by pundits far and wide at the moment, it’s baffling how it’s taken them this long to recognise how good Pirlo actually is.
After a fine season with Juventus, the midfielder has carried his form into this tournament and has shown that his experience is no match for some of his younger impersonators.
Constantly looking for the ball and sublime when he has it at his feet, Italy rely on the former Milan man to run the show for them. He’s proved in this tournament that even at the age of 33 he can still boss a game, with neither England nor Germany able to handle him. His worst game in fact was against the Spanish in the group stage, as long spells without the ball highlight how lost Pirlo gets in a game when his team are chasing it.
To get the best out of Pirlo the Italians will need to get on top on Spain, and despite the lesser performances of La Roja recently, that is still easier said than done.
Flip a coin, that’s Mario Balotelli. One day he’s immense, the next he’s a petulant child. But something seems different with him now; his motivation is incomparable to that displayed for Manchester City last season and his current passion for the game is a sight unseen.
Against England he came close. His runs were fantastic, but he couldn’t quite make them count. He perfected it against Germany. His movement was baffling for the Germans at times and his finishing was astute. Balotelli punished them for their mistakes and showed what a striker he might just become.
A partnership with Antonio Cassano also looks to becoming an intimidating prospect, as long as both keep their heads on the day. Spain nullified him in the first game and Super Mario looked just a shadow of the player he can be, but his form going into the final will make him a different prospect for the Spanish this time.
Expect to see fireworks (pun intended) with Balotelli whether he’s on form or not.
Daniele De Rossi
Euro 2012 has shown just how much of a utility man Daniele De Rossi can be. Having started in a sweeper role in the first game, the Roma man has been restored to his usual midfield role by manager Cesare Prandelli.
De Rossi brings a work ethic and a desire often bereft of many Italian teams, while he also has the ability to create and defend.
Though he had a freakishly poor game against England, De Rossi is an ever-present in this side; patrolling deeply to collect the ball, laying it off to team mates before moving into space to provide security should they need it.
With an ageing Pirlo (who didn’t chase much at the best of times) and a tendency by Prandelli to leave both strikers up-field, De Rossi is vital insurance in the centre.
His presence will be a necessity against Spain. With the midfield dominance they normally have, De Rossi will need to keep the ball better than ever.
His dependency is usually assured, but his mark on game isn’t always present. Here’s to hoping the best De Rossi shows up for the final.
Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini
Now it's time to focus on two of the unsung heroes at the heart of the Italian defence. You might not have known too much about Chiellini prior to Euro 2012 - and the chances are you may not have even heard of Bonucci.
It had looked like Chiellini may miss out on the rest of the tournament, so it will be a relief to Italian fans to see this powerful pair back together in the centre of the defence again.
Having not lost a single game for Juventus all season, it’s no surprise these two look so confident in this tournament.
Chiellini is world renowned for his defending, having been so consistent for the Old Lady and Italy for so long, but Bonucci was a fairly unknown prospect going into the tournament.
Known mainly for being able to shut Mario Balotelli up, Bonucci has seemed reliable and consistent throughout this tournament. His understanding with Chiellini makes them an impressive partnership, but even without his defensive comrade he looks assured.
Italy pride themselves on defence, but the goals they’ve conceded this tournament have been sloppy. A lack of concentration or being caught out of position remains a scourge, but the utmost confidence must be put into this duo; especially when you consider the season they had for the Bianconeri.
They’ll both need to be more wary of the threat Cesc Fabregas carries in his drifting position, and they’ll need all their tactical nous to see them through against such a flowing team as Spain.
Build from the back they always say, and with Italy their strength lies with these two.
By Richard Windsor - Follow me on Twitter @richwindy