Spain has chance to make history in Euro 2012 championship match
Spain could be the first with a World Cup and two Euro titles at the same time
Italy could cap an amazing comeback from a pre-tournament match-fixing scandal
Spain is a champion but not in vintage form; Italy should capitalize with a win
KIEV, Ukraine -- What's at stake when Spain meets Italy in the Euro 2012 final here on Sunday? For the Spanish, the final (ESPN/3/Deportes, 2:45 p.m. ET) provides the chance to take their place in soccer lore as one of the greatest national teams in the history of the sport. No country has ever held two European Championships and the World Cup trophy at the same time. And for all the talk of Spain winning without playing at its best, you just can't argue with three major titles in a row.
As for Italy, the surprise team of Euro 2012, winning on Sunday would be the latest remarkable chapter in the Italians' rich soccer history. Coach Cesare Prandelli has transformed Italy into an attack-minded team that bears little resemblance to your father's Italy. What's more, Prandelli deserves extra credit for the way his team has handled the pre-tournament match-fixing scandal that was the talk of Italian soccer. Italy has done this before, of course, circling the wagons and winning World Cups in 1982 and 2006 against the backdrop of scandals, but it's no less impressive to see Italy in position to do it again.
We have a pretty good idea of how this game will look, not least because Spain and Italy don't change their approach depending on their opponent (as we saw Germany and France do to their detriment in their elimination games). Spain will possess the ball for long periods, probing the Italian defense for weaknesses like a dentist looking for a cavity. Italy will take its own time too when it was the ball, relying on the magisterial Andrea Pirlo to find his open teammates. That's exactly what he did the last time these teams met, sending a brilliant through-ball to Antonio Di Natale for the opening strike of their 1-1 tie in their first game of Euro 2012.
In a tournament that has been nearly bereft of impact traditional forwards, Italy is the rare team that uses two of them. Mario Balotelli and Antonio Cassano, at various times the bad boys of Italian soccer, seemed like a potentially volatile combination before the tournament. But they have made a good pairing, with Balotelli respecting his veteran teammate and Cassano doing some marvelous set-up work for the 21-year-old emerging superstar.
Spain, for its part, has often refused to use any traditional forwards, opting for a 4-6-0 formation in many games with Cesc Fabregas in place of Fernando Torres. One big question going into the final will be if coach Vicente Del Bosque goes back to using Torres, who scored the only goal of the Euro 2008 final, or if he'll select Fabregas, who has been most effective as a supersub here.
Italy has lineup questions, too. Will Prandelli use a three-man back line, as he did in the opener against Spain, or will he stick with the four-man line that has been successful the last few games? (I suspect he'll go with four.) And will Christian Maggio get the call at right back for Italy now that he has returned from his semifinal suspension?
The winner of this game should also determine the player of the tournament between Spain's Andrés Iniesta and Italy's Pirlo. Iniesta has been fantastic here, providing a cutting edge to the Spanish attack and making up for the fact that Xavi hasn't been at his very best. In this tournament of midfielders, Iniesta's little bursts of imagination and unpredictability have made the difference for Spain. The same could be said of Pirlo, who at 33 was written off by some people as being too old for the game's highest levels. Talk about an Italian renaissance: All Pirlo has done over the past year is lead undefeated Juventus to the Serie A title and spearhead Italy's drive to the Euro 2012 final.
Like all neutrals, I'm just hoping for a memorable game. Every player knows that if you do something big in a final, the highlight will be shown over and over through the years as we remember the great moments of the sport. (Iniesta knows plenty about this after his goal to win the World Cup 2010 final.) The electric Italy-Germany semifinal brought the tournament back to life after two straight 0-0 snoozefests in England-Italy and Spain-Portugal. If we can get anything like that again on Sunday, the soccer gods will deserve our thanks.
As for predictions, I've gone back and forth. But the more I replay the opening 1-1 tie between Spain and Italy in my mind, the more I like Prandelli's team and its refusal to play in fear against the Spanish. Spain is a great champion, but it is not in vintage form, and I think it'll catch up to them on Sunday.
The pick: Italy 2, Spain 1.