Spain did their part, but Italy upset Germany to reach the Euro 2012 final, and the story of the tournament is poised to become the story of Mario Balotelli. Roles are reversed this time, as it's the Spanish that are being labelled boring and it's the Italians providing the exciting attacking play, setting the stage for an exciting finale. Read on to discover what to watch for in the final.
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Italy and Spain played out a 1-1 draw in the opening round of group matches, but this rematch should be quite a bit different as Italy has switched from a 3-5-2 formation to a 4-4-2 with a midfield diamond. But the real story is the emergence of Mario Balotelli onto the international scene, after his 2 goals in the semifinal. He and Antonio Cassano combined to dangerous effect, and when fed balls by the ageless Andrea Pirlo, they are hard to beat.
What to watch for in this match:
- Pirlo in the middle of things. The 33-year-old Pirlo is the fulcrum for Italy, and their tactics are largely set up so that he has space to operate in midfield. Sergio Busquets and Xabi Alonso will try to deny him space and shut him down, but that's far easier said than done, thanks to the ability of the other Italian midfielders. Spain can't afford to ignore them, and Italy's narrow approach in midfield should draw in Spain's midfielders and attackers as well, so they're not outnumbered.
- Battle of the fullbacks. With things packed narrow in midfield, both teams' fullbacks will have an important role in attack. Jordi Alba has been playing very well on the left for Spain in this regard, and Alvaro Arbeloa is solid on the right. But as Alba moves forward, Cassano and Balotelli will move out wide and look to cut in the space between the 3 players left in defense. If they can make good runs and Pirlo has time to pick them out with his killer diagonal passes, they will get good chances to score. Italy's fullbacks provide important width to its attack, but the narrow midfield diamond leaves them slightly exposed, particularly when they venture forward. If Spain can find wide outlets, they should be able to break into space and move forward, then cross for their center-forward. Oh wait...
- Spain's formation. It seems likely that Spain will line up with Cesc Fabregas as a nominal center-forward again, following the invisibility of Alvaro Negredo against Portugal and Fernando Torres' continued ineffectiveness. Really, Fabregas will be just another midfielder. Spain's approach doesn't rely on a finisher, but rather its midfielders slowly penetrating with quick, short passes before passing into the net. What's key to understanding Spain is that their possession is really a defensive tactic -- they spend long periods of time knocking the ball around to tire out the opposition, and to prevent them from attacking. This is part of the reason Spain has become quite boring to watch: much of their game is based on holding the ball without penetrating, rather just maintaining 0-0 until later in the game, when they can find a crack in a tired defense and get the ball forward. The best thing that could happen for the neutral observer in this match is an early goal from Italy, which would force Spain to come out and attack. Given the way they've played, and the tactical reshuffle this could force, such a goal would make things really difficult for Spain.
While major finals are often marked by an overabundance of caution (such as the 2010 World Cup final, where the Netherlands adopted a ridiculously negative approach to try and beat Spain), the tactical battle here should make things interesting. Italy won't be afraid to attack and Spain's path through the tournament will provide the Italians with plenty of hope. The space around Pirlo, and the ability of Balotelli and Cassano to finish chances, will tell the tale of this match -- and I see the Italians taking it.