- Euro 2012
Balotelli gunning for Spain's history boys
The final of Euro 2012 pits a Spain side that has already gone down as one of the most successful teams in history against underdogs Italy, who have overcome adversity to reach the final in a manner similar to their World Cup triumph of 2006. A 1-1 meeting on June 10 in their first group game suggested little is between these two now as they battle to be crowned the best team in Europe.
Unquestionably it is Vicente del Bosque's team - the current holders and 2010 World Cup winners - who are expected to win in Kiev on Sunday, but football has a way of upsetting the form book, and the way Italy dominated England in the quarter-finals before seeing off a heavily-favoured Germany has many rethinking their pre-tournament predictions.
While they have been defensively sound, Spain have failed to light up the tournament in an attacking sense as they have done in previous years. With Del Bosque unsure over whom he should name as his starting striker, or indeed if he should name one at all, the options of Cesc Fabregas, Fernando Torres and Alvaro Negredo have all been used to varying degrees of success; no certain conclusions have been drawn, but a 4-6-0 formation seems to be the one that works the best.
Relying on the ball-winning skills of Sergio Busquets and Xabi Alonso in midfield, the guile of Xavi and Andres Iniesta has been the platform for Spain's attacks but, aside from a 4-0 thrashing of lowly Ireland, Euro 2012 has been something of a frustrating time for the champions. Too often their passing game has seemingly run out of ideas in the final third and, when Jesus Navas and Torres have been benched, Spain have seemed to lack their dynamism.
Italy, too, have struggled in places and did not really look like they could challenge for the tournament before the knockout rounds began. Two 1-1 draws in succession against Spain and Croatia kept the points flowing before a 2-0 win over Ireland secured their place, but Cesare Prandelli's men were not showing much confidence before they overran England in normal time and then beat them on penalties.
Key to that win was Andrea Pirlo, whose 'Panenka' penalty swayed the momentum in their favour in the shootout, and the veteran midfielder has been one of the players of the tournament, leading many to wonder how AC Milan let him join Juventus on a free last summer. While some had expected Italy to revert to the defensive stereotype against Germany, it was not to be the case: with Pirlo at the core, the Azzurri showed a desire to get on the front foot before defending their lead.
Prandelli's men seem to enjoy the underdog status they have picked up. A bad omen for Spain, as they bid to become the only team ever to win three major international tournaments back to back, is that the last time anybody wrote Italy off in such a fashion was 2006.
Spain player to watch: Jordi Alba. For all of Spain's attacking talent, it is left-back Alba who has caught the most attention this tournament. Providing an outlet in a position that has historically been seen as Spain's weakest, the defender has also helped his country keep the best defensive record in the competition. Sealing a €14 million move to Barcelona from Valencia has put him in the spotlight and the final will provide him another platform upon which to shine.
Italy player to watch: Mario Balotelli. It is always him and, after his performance in netting a brace to see off Germany in the semi-finals, it can be no-one else. Balotelli's impact in the knockout rounds has been immense and he has shown the watching world all that he has to offer: pace, power and a finishing touch that makes him one of the most exciting young players in world football. He has kept his cool to ensure that he has the stage to showcase his talent - now he must use it.
Key Battle: Xavi v Andrea Pirlo. Two pass-masters who are soon to become past-masters; one wonders if the classy duo will be quite the same force at the European Championship in 2016, but for now they remain two of the finest central midfielders in the world. Boasting a great first touch and vision second to none, they are the heartbeat of their respective teams and dictate the tempo at which they play. The key to opening up the opposition's defence in Kiev will come from the feet of one of this pair and their vast experience will ensure that the occasion does not get the better of them.
Trivia: Three of the four games between Spain and Italy at the European Championship finals have ended as draws. The only one that didn't was a 1-0 for Italy in 1988.
Stats: With 69 shots, Italy have attempted the most so far at Euro 2012. Spain, meanwhile, have made 58 passes per shot at this tournament, as compared to 44 at the 2010 World Cup and 33 at Euro 2008; their last 28 European Championship goals, including penalties, have all come from inside the box.
Odds: Spain (2.10), Italy (3.75), and the draw (3.25) is on offer with bet365, while Mario Balotelli to score first comes in at 8.50.
Prediction: One can't shake the feeling that, like 2006, a pre-tournament match-fixing scandal has stoked Italy's fire to succeed. Couple that with a poor effort from Spain in the attacking department this summer and Italy could walk away with the trophy.