Kiev. Having steadily risen to the boil in trademark fashion, Italy will seek to exploit chinks in the armor of defending champion Spain when the teams meet in the Euro 2012 final here on Sunday.
After beating strongly fancied Germany, 2-1, in Thursday’s semifinal in Warsaw, the Azzurri appear to be hitting form at precisely the right time.
Reigning world and European champions Spain is bidding to become the first team in history to win three consecutive major titles, but it failed to look convincing in its semifinal penalty shoot-out win over Portugal in Donetsk, Ukraine.
Despite dominating in possession time, Spain labored in its attack against the Portuguese and have started to face accusations that their “tika-taka” style has become sterile.
Italy, in contrast, has confounded low pre-tournament expectations to eliminate England and then Germany, and now stand on the brink of a second Euro trophy.
Because the team’s preparations for the tournament having been clouded by the “Calcioscommesse” match-fixing affair, Italy could be poised to triumph in the face of adversity once again.
Its World Cup successes in 1982 and 2006 were prefaced by match-fixing scandals, but coach Cesare Prandelli has cooled talk of omens by insisting that his side will be the underdogs at Kiev’s Olympic Stadium.
“The favorites are Spain because they’ve been working for years and they dominate every game,” said Prandelli, whose side beat Spain, 2-1, in a friendly in August last year.
“We’ll come up against a brilliant team, that is always able to play its game and has shown that over recent years.”
Spain and Italy drew, 1-1, in their opening Group C game — Cesc Fabregas canceling out Antonio di Natale’s opener — and it will be the fourth time that two teams who have met in their first game resume hostilities in the final.
The last occasion was at Euro 2004, when Greece twice upset host Portugal.
Italy successfully stifled Spain three weeks ago in Gdansk, as Prandelli opted for a 3-5-2 formation that afforded his defenders extra room to maneuver against Spain’s fluid front three.
Fabregas was used as a “false nine” in that game, but Spain coach Vicente del Bosque appears to have doubts over who is the best player to spearhead his attack.
Fernando Torres played up front in the 4-0 win over Ireland and the 1-0 defeat of Croatia, while Alvaro Negredo started in the 0-0 draw with Portugal but was replaced by Fabregas in the second half.
One striker brimming with confidence is Italy’s Mario Balotelli, who came of age in the match against Germany with a confidently taken first-half brace.
“He’s a great player and he showed that again [Thursday],” Fabregas said of Balotelli. “To score like that in the semifinal against Germany says it all. We have to try and throw him off his game because he is a player who can cause problems.”
An engaging tournament requires only a memorable final to confirm its status as a modern classic, but Spain will need to awaken from its slumber if it is to overcome a disciplined and committed Italy.
The champions must also shake the weariness from their legs after 120 minutes of play against Portugal, although they will benefit from an extra day’s rest.
“Yes, they are tired,” said Del Bosque, who is seeking to become the first coach to win the European Championship, the World Cup and the Champions League. “They played all season to their limits but they are used to the wear and tear of a season spent playing at the highest level.”
As well as pitting together two of the tournament’s outstanding midfielders in Spain’s Andres Iniesta and Italy’s Andrea Pirlo, Sunday game’s will also see Spain attempt to become the first country to successfully defend the European title.