Spain vs. Italy. Xavi vs. Pirlo. Casillas vs. Buffon. Balotelli vs. Pique. Iniesta vs. Chielini. I could go on and on and on, but I’m sure you get the idea. Two of the world’s biggest football powers facing off in one match to decide which team can be deemed the European football Champions. On one hand you have the defending European and World Cup Champions in Spain, who have been dominant on the ball, but just squeaking out wins without a pure striker in their XI (for the most part). On the other hand, you have the challenger in Italy, who has been riding a wave of defensively effective football, with a midfielder who’s been the best player in the entire tournament and a volatile striker who has been absolutely brilliant in the knockout stage. Let’s take a closer look at the tale of the tape:
How they got here: Finishing atop their group, the Spaniards dismantled a rather disgruntled French team in the quarters. A test against Portugal in the semifinals ended up in a Spain penalty shootout victory—a victory where the most talented player in the tournament, Cristiano Ronaldo, did not even have the chance to factor in the shootout result.
Why they got here: Simply put, Spain is Spain. Their technical skill and chemistry is far superior to any other team in the world. Ball possession is the name of the game for La Roja. What may seem boring to some may seem beautiful to others. No matter what, their constant movement of the ball and their patience to wait for the defending team to mentally lapse is exceptional to the point where you wonder not if but when that goal will be scored. None of their games have been runaway blowouts, save for the below average Irish, but they have been able to consistently play the game they want to play. They virtually always control the tempo and pace, which will not change against a defensive minded Italy squad.
Why they will win: I hate to be repetitive, but ball possession, ball possession, ball possession. Spain simply lulls the opposing team into a daze with their smooth ball movement. La Roja will definitely have the majority of possession during the game, and their patience and willingness to build up their attacking play is something that no other team can emulate. They’ll create chance after chance to test world class Italian keeper Gianluigi Buffon, and have the ability to score due to their chain of connecting passes. Even without a pure striker up top, they boast too much talent and skill that it is inconceivable scoring chances will be easy to come by.
Why they will lose: Everything has come easy to Spain in this tournament except for one thing—putting the ball in the back of the net. Fernando Torres had a double against Ireland, but manager Vicente Del Bosque seems to not trust any of his strikers against worthy opponents. It is why you have seen the likes Cesc Fabregas, Jesus Navas, and Pedro trying to make up for the lack of a striking presence using their smarts and one touch passing skills to combine with the likes of Iniesta and Xavi to get opportunities in front of goal. Those opportunities have not come as much as they would like for a team with such sublime skill. It just makes you wonder if a fully fit David Villa would translate to easier goals for the Spanish.
Best player throughout the tournament: Andres Iniesta has played very well, but Jordy Alba has played even better. He’s been the breakout star of the tournament at left back replacing Sergio Ramos, who’s been filling in at center back for the injured Carles Puyol. The 23 year old has been a terror on the left side of the pitch defensively, and gets forward very well with his ability to take and get past defenders down the line. He has played his way into a transfer to powerhouse Barcelona, where he should have no trouble seeing the field if he continues his great run of form.
X-Factor: I cannot really peg an X-factor for Spain due to Del Bosque’s uncertainty whether to put a striker up top in his XI or not. Alvaro Negredo started in the semis and did not play particularly well, so one would have to think if a striker were to be called into the starting XI on Sunday, Fernando Torres would get the nod. Although he has not enjoyed a great season for his club, Chelsea, he still shows occasional flashes of what made him once a £50 transfer from Liverpool. If he can see the field against Italy, he needs to be active in the attack for Spain to take home a second consecutive European Championship.
Don’t Forget: They do have the best goalkeeper in the world, too. And he always comes up big in the clutch. Not too shabby, eh?
How they got here: In the same group as Spain (who they tied 1-1 in their tournament opener) Italy advanced as the group’s runner-ups with uncertainty over playing 3 or a traditional 4 in the back of their defense. They outplayed England in the quarters, but Buffon was there to save the day as they advanced in penalties. In the semi’s, Mario Balotelli went crazy and scored two superb goals over the media’s touted favorite in Germany.
Why they got here: Their defensive minded approach has allowed the Azzurri to concede only 3 goals all tournament long. The only team who has conceded less is, of course, Spain. Their striking presence has been superb as well. The Antonio Cassano/Mario Balotelli tandem has proved worthwhile for manager Cesare Prandelli. Balotelli was absolutely dazzling against Germany in the quarters, proving his talent level can over-exceed his mental issues. They are so dangerous on the counter attack, with players such as Pirlo and Montelivo being such great architects in the midfield, which allows the Italians to sit back and stay compact in their own half.
Why they will win: The Italians are riding high on confidence (especially Balotelli) and they need to stick to their gameplan for the entire 90 minutes if they want to come out on top. They can ill afford to make any stupid mistakes in front of Buffon, or else they will be forced to open up and play to Spain’s strengths. If they score first, however, as they did against the Germans, they will be in the drivers seat for the rest of the game. Pirlo can feed Cassano and Balotelli inch-perfect through balls to have chances to counter and catch the Spain back four off guard. They did it to the German duo of Hummels and Badstuber. Could they do it against Pique and Ramos? Absolutely.
Why they will lose: Well, they simply don’t have the chemistry offensively that the Spaniards have. Their chances against Spain are going to come few and far between with the way La Roja dominates ball possession. Even when they get great chances on goal, Italy has not been able to consistently capitalize and produce (with the exception of Balotelli’s brilliance against Germany) for a team who could use a multiple goal margin with their compact style of football. Plus, Spain is by far the more talented squad.
Best player throughout the tournament: Yes, the whole world is talking about Balotelli and his majestic work against ‘Ze Germans’, but Andrea Pirlo has been the best player of the entire tournament. The 33-year-old central midfielder has been electric on the ball with his sublime passing. He is world class at staying calm under pressure by getting into open spaces on the field to operate the Italian attack. 2010-2011 Serie A Champions AC Milan deemed Pirlo too old to stay on for another year, so Juventus picked him up. Of course, he led Juventus to their first Serie A title in nine years. Pirlo is a proven winner who can change the game with his magnificent skill set, which he has proven in this tournament.
X-Factor: Can it really be anyone else but Super Mario? Balotelli will need to keep his emotions in check, because he will be the most important player out on the pitch come Sunday. If he can avoid any mental errors, Balotelli will be a lot for the Spain back four to defend. If he cannot keep his bad attitude and antics to himself, then he is a red card waiting to happen, and a dangerous liability for the Italians on the pitch. Balotelli just needs to play hard and not let tiny things frustrate him mentally. He is one of the best strikers in the world when he is in the zone. The Azzurri are sure hoping the timer on his time bomb does not run out against the Spainards.
Don’t Forget: Along with the world’s second best goalkeeper, Italy has not scored more than 2 goals in a game since October 11th of last year against Northern Ireland (10 fixtures ago).
What Will Happen: Spain is the more impressive team, but Italy had the more impressive semifinals performance. Look for this game to constantly be played in the Italian half, which will lead to Italian counter attacks. Balotelli’s form is too good not to put one past Casillas, but the Spainairds are just too good to falter now. They will cement their status as one of the greatest teams in the history of the game with a professional victory on Sunday.