Euro 2012 final: Where will the game be won and lost?
So this is it. After three weeks of gruelling and intense competition, featuring 30 games and 16 teams, we are down to the last two standing.
Spain and Italy will do battle in the Euro 2012 final in Kiev on Sunday. For one, the prize is to be crowned kings of Europe until the next finals in France in 2016. For the loser, it will feel like the end of the world.
The campaign got underway for both teams with a match in Gdansk on June 10. Antonio Di Natale and Cesc Fabregas exchanged goals in three second half minutes as the honours were shared.
The Spanish progressed with a masterful win over a woeful Republic of Ireland side, before a Jesus Navas late strike sunk Croatia to ensure the defending champions ended in top spot in Group C.
Following a routine quarter-final success as two Xabi Alonso strikes dispensed with France, Vicente del Bosque’s side reached their third successive final with a nervy triumph on penalties against Iberian rivals Portugal.
After the encouraging draw with Spain, the Azzurri moved onto Poznan and faded dramatically to draw 1-1 with Croatia. The Irish were beaten comfortably a few days later, with the result good enough to take Cesare Prandelli’s team through as Group C runners-up.
Penalties were required to end the dreams of England in the last eight; before moments of brilliance from Mario Balotelli saw the Italians oust pre-tournament favourites Germany in the last four in Warsaw.
There is plenty of talent out on the field, so who could make the difference in this final showdown.
Spain’s key men: Sergio Ramos, Andres Iniesta & Cesc Fabregas
Sergio Ramos will be part of a back four which has to do better than the German defence did in the semi-final, be prepared for the threat that might happen.
Ramos had an outstanding semi-final, as he restricted Cristiano Ronaldo to long range efforts. Then he coolly dispatched his penalty in the shoot-out, brave considering he drove his spot kick over the bar and almost out of the Bernabeu during Real Madrid’s semi-final exit in the Champions League at the hands of Bayern Munich.
Centre back is not his natural position but he has developed an immediate understanding with Gerard Pique and it is a partnership that is tough to beat, with only Antonio Di Natale finding a way past them so far.
Everyone knows about the qualities of Andres Iniesta and he will have sweet memories of finals, after his extra-time winner settling the dour World Cup final in Soccer City two years ago.
Iniesta was at his best in the group stages of Euro 2012 and hasn’t quite looked the same player in the knockout rounds.
There can’t be any denying that he is a big game player and as one of the best at the creative element to the game, many will be looking for him to sparkle.
The role that Cesc Fabregas will have is going to be open to debate until the teams are revealed on Sunday.
Fabregas has started in as has been referred to ‘the fake no.9 position’ when del Bosque has gone with his curious 4-6-0 formation.
He has coped well and made no fuss over selection policy and this is one of the reasons why this team is defending World and European champions.
The class is there in abundance and so is the hunger. Can they prove to the world again that they have the upper hand in international football?
Italy’s key men: Gianluigi Buffon, Giorgio Chiellini & Mario Balotelli
Gianluigi Buffon (pictured) has rolled back the years in Euro 2012 and he isn’t the only Juventus player on the wrong side of 30 to have had an inspired tournament.
He looked nervous at times against Germany but had a calm personify around him and he made some crucial saves from Toni Kroos and Marco Reus at critical moments of the semi-final.
Buffon will be tough to beat and is aiming for another major medal in his collection, capping off a fine year after domestic success in Serie A with Juve.
Team-mate at both club and country level, Giorgio Chiellini returned to the defence following a hamstring injury that ruled him out of the quarter-final with England.
He made some well-timed challenges and was at the heart of a heroic defensive display when required to repel the German attacks in the Warsaw semi-final.
Not always at his best thanks to injury, Chiellini has to put those doubts to the back of his mind in the final.
Before the group opener with Spain in Gdansk last month, he said; “We won't sit back and counter attack because that is not in our nature. We'll try to play good football; I believe we can beat Spain."
Mario Balotelli has to believe that is possible and with all the other main contenders out of the running, is now the prime favourite to win the Golden Boot award.
We’ve seen the predictable best and worst in the tournament from Italy’s number nine but what we did see against Germany was a deadly striker full of confidence that everything he was going to touch would end up with goals.
With a striker like this around, Italy might start as slender underdogs but shouldn’t be discounted whatsoever.
So with one Euro win apiece and one final agony for both, the scene is set for the final showdown of a compelling European Championship.
Spain v Italy is live on both BBC One & BBC One HD as well as ITV1 & ITV1 HD on Sunday. The coverage for both channels starts at 7pm; kick-off in Kiev is at 7.45pm. The match is also broadcasted on BBC Radio 5 Live, TalkSport & Absolute Radio.
By Simon Wright – Follow me on Twitter @Siwri88