Three weeks ago, Spain and Italy battled to a 1-1 draw to begin the 2012 European Championships. Spain entered the tournament as defending champion and favorite, while Italy came in under a cloud of controversy and uncertainty. The match was as entertaining as it was close, and gave many fans hope for a spirited tournament...which has certainly been the case. Later this afternoon the two storied soccer clubs will meet in a rematch, this time for the title (2:30 et, ESPN).
Spain has seemed a bit flat in this tournament, relying more on possesssion and stingy defense in its run to repeat as champions. In fact, the only goal Spain has conceded in this tournament was to Italy in the aforementioned tournament opener. Spain has played most of this tournament without a true striker, choosing to deploy Cesc Fabregas up front while keeping Fernando Torres out of the starting 11. This strategy nearly backfired in the semifinals against Portugal, as the rivals battled to a scoreless draw that Spain won in penalty kicks.
Italy comes off what has to be considered the most impressive victory for any club in this year's tournament, a 2-1 defeat of Germany in the semifinals that featured two world-class goals from ultra-talented, but often enigmatic, forward Mario Balotelli. The Azzurri feature two of the world's best players over the past decade in goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon and midfielder Andrea Pirlo. Some critics were saying Buffon and Pirlo were well past their prime, going so far as suggesting this tournament could be the final major international tournament for both. Instead, Buffon has been stellar and Pirlo has been the key to Italy's superior possession game all tournament long.
I look for this matchup to start slowly, with both teams trying to dictate possession with their strong midfields. Italy will likely try to get the ball to Balotelli early to see if they can get a quick strike and force Spain to play a more aggressive style to open up for the counterattack. Look for Spain to once again bring Torres in as a substitute in the second half for a change of pace, especially if they are down.
Prediction: Balotelli scores an early goal, Spain ties it up in the second half, and this one goes to penalty kicks with Spain successfully defending its title.