Recently, Spain and Italy have been most frequently and most recently in the news for their struggling economies. But during the past three weeks, in which the two nations are among the most historically successful in international soccer, they’ve grabbed headlines for much happier reasons.
Their initial meeting on the third day of the Euro 2012 tournament ended in a 1-1 draw, with Italy’s Antonio de Natale scoring in the 61st minute and Spain’s Cesc Fabregas answering with a goal three minutes later. The final match, of course, can’t end in a draw.
The last team to win a Euro or World Cup that wasn’t Spain? That would be 2006 World Cup winner Italy.
Each team has already played one match in the Euro 2012 tournament that went to extra time plus penalty kicks — Spain dispatched Portugal 4-2 on penalty kicks in its semifinals match, after 120 minutes of scoreless yet sometimes artful soccer, whereas England and Italy met in the quarterfinals, arrived at 0-0 in a defense-dominant match before Italy advanced with the same 4-2 penalty kick margin.
Both winning teams, strangely, had a successful panenka (a kick which appears more bunt than line drive, to use a baseball analogy) on what were arguably the pivotal turns in the penalty kick sequences.
If you’ve been following the tournament closely, you’re aware that Spain is going for an unprecedented three championships in a row, known in soccer parlance as a treble, having already won the 2008 Euros and the 2010 World Cup. Germany, Spain’s likely finals opponents (and the most talented and highest-ranked squad in the tournament that’s not Spain) was bumped by Italy in the semifinals, making Italy’s presence in this match of a bit of a surprise.
However, the last team to win a Euro or World Cup that wasn’t Spain? That would be 2006 World Cup winner Italy, which beat France in Berlin on penalties in the infamous Zinedine Zidane red card headbutt incident literally heard around the world.
Who to Watch for Spain
Iker Casillas: In all the excitement about Spain’s experimentation with its cavalier 4-6-0 formation, and its usual dominance in possession and completed passes, it’s easy to overlook the stellar job Casillas has done this tournament. After five games, Casillas has only allowed the one goal to Italy: Spain has held Ireland, Croatia, France and Portugal on the way to the finals.
Cesc Fabregas: He might start, he might come on as a late sub, but he’s been impactful in his appearances for Spain, scoring in the Italy match and getting Spain to the finals with the final penalty kick against Portugal, which he pinged dangerously off the post into the net.
Whoever is playing striker: Spain has gone with three options at striker so far: the inconsistent Fernando Torres (one of the most mocked players in this year’s English Premier League for failing to meet Chelsea’s lofty expectations), Alvaro Negredo (who lasted 54 minutes of the semifinals match) and any of six midfielders pretending to be a forward (with Fabregas or David Silva the primary false nines).
Yet to play: real-life actual striker Fernando Llorente, arguably the best player at the tournament to not yet see a single minute of action.
How Spain wins: The likeliest formula for a Spain win will rely on passing and possession. Spain’s stats are absurd: its players completed 80 percent of a staggering 4,222 passes in the tournament, compared to Italy’s 74 percent on 3111. Spain maintained possession for 60 percent of its matches, compared to 52 percent for Italy.
Look for the Spaniards — if they’re executing their game plan — to pass the ball often, looking to frustrate the Italians into defensive lapses and fouls, and score a goal likely to come from a succession of several well-executed passes in the penalty area. 1-0’s not an entirely unexpected outcome.
Who to Watch for Italy
Gianluigi Buffon: As with the Spanish team, goal keeping has been vital to Italy’s tournament run and Buffon is one of the best keepers in the world, as well as one of the most experienced players on the Italian team.
He was incredible against Germany, sometimes expressing the effort it took him with incredibly comic expressions, but he kept the most offensively-potent team in the tournament from scoring for 93 minutes, and Germany’s only goal came on a penalty kick awarded when an Italian player was charged with a handball.
Andrea Pirlo: The veteran midfielder’s had an outstanding tournament, and his ability to control the ball and dictate tempo has been crucial in getting Italy this far. Because of Spain’s ability to control the ball, Italy will have to make the most of its chances and counterattacks, and Pirlo will be critical in that.
Mario Balotelli: Balotelli has been his mercurial self this tournament. Against Spain in the first game of the tournament, The Mohawked One stripped Sergio Ramos of the ball under 30 yards from goal, and with a clear path to scoring laid before him, he meandered almost aimlessly toward goal, allowing Ramos to catch up and regain possession before Balotelli could (or, more like, would) take a shot.
But then, against Germany, he scored both goals on brilliant plays, the first highlighting his strength, and the second highlighting his creative individual flair. (He did get a yellow card by taking off his shirt and doing the Arrogant Statue after the second goal. But then balance was restored to the universe.)
How Italy wins: There’s the creative way and the grueling way. The creative way is to do what Italy did against Germany. They scored on a pass from the left wing that threaded through the defense to a leaping Balotelli on the first goal, and looped a pass over the defense for the second goal.
Balotelli managed to stay onside, timed his run well, and then finished brilliantly. The grueling way is to grind it out for 120 minutes, sitting back on defense, letting Spain pass but not shoot, and taking chances on penalty kicks.
Who Actually Wins
Time for a safe and boring prediction. Spain scores at around the 65-minute mark and wins 1-0. I’d love something freewheeling on the order of 3-2 (specifically, Germany 3, Spain 2, but that dream died Thursday).
1-0 feels like the right call here, though, upon which fans from all other nations begin worrying that Spain is destined to win every World Cup and Euro from now until whenever the Mayans say the world's ending.