History at stake in star-powered Euro final between Italy, Spain
Spain can become the first country to win three major tournaments in a row
This could be the final major tournament appearance for Xavi and Andrea Pirlo
Late-charging Mario Balotelli needs one more goal to win the Golden Boot award
Early storylines going into the Italy-Spain Euro 2012 final on Sunday:
1. Three is the magic number. Spain has already equaled the achievement of West Germany, which was the 1972 and 1974 European and world champions before falling just short in the 1976 European Championship, losing on penalties to Czech Republic in the final (that was the shootout in which Antonin Panenka gave his name to the chipped penalty that has been a feature of the two shootouts in Euro 2012).
Now its motivation on Sunday is to become the first nation to win three major tournaments in a row (and no, I'm not counting Uruguay winning the 1924 and 1928 Olympics and 1930 World Cup).
"If they won three tournaments in a row, something no other team has done, you would put them up there among the all-time greatest," former England forward Gary Lineker said before the tournament. "What you need to have to be in that company is that degree of longevity."
Italy, meanwhile, will be playing its third European Championship final, after winning in 1968 and losing in 2000. The surprise finalist has also not lost to Spain in normal time in its last three matches: a Euro 2008 quarterfinal (0-0, Spain won on penalties), a 2-1 friendly win in August 2011 and its Group C opener earlier this month, which ended 1-1. Of the teams in the second semifinal, Spain would probably have rather faced Germany: despite the 2008 success, it hasn't beaten Italy in 90 minutes in more than 60 years.
2. Battle of the coaches. Vicente del Bosque has been criticized heavily in Spain for his selections, but all of them, bar one, have paid off handsomely. In game one, Del Bosque picked Cesc Fabregas as the false No. 9, and he scored the equalizer against Italy; game two, Fernando Torres started and scored twice against Ireland; game three, it was the substitutes who created the winner over Croatia, as Fabregas released Andrés Iniesta who crossed for Jesus Navas to score.
Del Bosque's brilliance from the bench helped clinch the win over France, as Santi Cazorla set up Pedro Rodriguez to earn a late penalty for the second goal. The failure? Alvaro Negredo starting the quarterfinal against Portugal: despite an international record of six goals in 11 matches, all in victories, the curveball selection of Negredo didn't work, and Spain only looked a threat going forward when all three subs -- Fabregas, Pedro and Navas -- combined.
Prandelli has pulled off an even more impressive feat: while Germany has taken 12 years to introduce a new attractive playing style and a new generation of players, in Italy the change has taken only two years. When he took over after the 2010 World Cup, Italy had finished bottom of a group that contained Paraguay, Slovakia and New Zealand. With largely the same group of players, Prandelli has advocated an attacking philosophy, and the team has responded.
"I want our matches to be open and spectacular," he told L'Equipe before the tournament. "We want to improve by combining our results-oriented culture with an ambitious and attacking game."
Prandelli has also not been afraid to change formation to suit the opponent: against Spain in the opener, he played a dynamic 3-5-2 system with Daniele De Rossi as the third center back. His substitutions have also paid off: Antonio di Natale scored against Spain, Mario Balotelli against Ireland and, decisively, Alessandro Diamanti hit the winning penalty against England.
It will be fascinating to see how each coach will line up for the final. The speculation begins now.
3. Xavi Hernandez and Andrea Pirlo. Champions League winners, World Cup winners and, last season, the two players who passed the ball more than any other for their teams: Xavi averaged 94 passes and Pirlo 86. Could this be the last tournament appearance for both? Pirlo has already said he's unlikely to make it for the 2014 World Cup while Xavi, already Spain's most-capped outfield player, with 114 appearances, has been struggling with a calf injury this month (still, it hasn't bothered him too much: he and Iniesta made 229 passes against Ireland, more than the combined Irish 11 managed). Both players were inspired by Pep Guardiola -- who left Barcelona aged 31 and played for Brescia, as a replacement for Milan-bound Pirlo -- and while it was his predecessor as Barcelona coach, Frank Rijkaard, who in 2007 pushed Xavi 20 yards further forward to make use of his vision and passing, it was under Guardiola that Xavi really blossomed.
"Four or five years ago, I was considered out of date and useless," Xavi told L'Equipe last month. "I was the cancer of Barcelona: a player who is as short as me, it's unthinkable. So to have played in this [Barcelona] team and to have won everything we have won, and to have become some kind of reference, it makes me happy and proud."
Xavi may play further forward and prefer short passes, with Pirlo playing a deeper and longer game, but both are fundamental to their teams.
4. Mario Balotelli. Even before he scored the two brilliant goals that ended Germany's 15-match winning run and earned Italy a surprise place in the final, Balotelli has had a superb tournament. While his performance against Spain was noted for the "Mario moment" when time seemed to stop for him as he bore down on Iker Casillas' goal, it was forgotten that he had created the chance himself, pressuring Sergio Ramos on the touchline and with strength and skill, leaving one of the tournament's best center halves red-faced and chasing in his wake.
Against Ireland in the group finale, once again Balotelli's brilliance was overshadowed: a volleyed goal, at that time one of the strikes of the tournament, but then the celebration, some kind of message directed at the coach, or the fans, blocked by teammate Leonardo Bonucci putting his hand over his mouth.
Against England, he created space for himself, creating chance after chance that he could not put away. He kicked the post in frustration but, just when it looked like it might be one of those nights, kept his cool enough to score a brilliant first penalty against Manchester City teammate Joe Hart in the shootout (I actually have a theory that Balotelli's spot kick was so good that it put pressure on Riccardo Montolivo to find the side-netting for his penalty, which he hit narrowly wide). In short, he has been working hard, battling for the team, staying out of trouble and bothering defenses.
And then there was the master class against Germany: first evading Holger Badstuber to powerfully head home Antonio Cassano's cross and then, brilliantly beating the offside trap and running clear of Philipp Lahm to smash home a dramatic second from the edge of the area.
After the first, we saw something very rare from Balotelli: a smile and celebration after the ball went it. "I'll celebrate properly just when the occasion arises," he had told Gazzetta dello Sport -- and this was that moment. After the second goal, normal service was resumed: Balotelli took off his shirt, was needlessly booked and was subbed off early in the second half to prevent a red card.
His coach at Manchester City, Roberto Mancini, has said Balotelli "has everything you need to be one of the best players in the world, physique, and technique, but he still has a lot of work to get there."
Now he needs just one more goal to win the Golden Boot -- and who saw that coming?