So, it's decided. Spain will face Italy in the final Euro 2012 after many believed that Germany were shoe-ins to progress past the Azzurri. Much of the credit should go to Cesare Prandelli for the Italian's surprise appearance in Sunday's showdown, with the former Fiorentina boss taking a team who had failed so spectacularly at the World Cup in 2010 and has turned them into one of Europe's finest once again.
In comparison, after Spain hit the heights of world glory in South Africa many have begun to claim their style of play is boring and predictable. The fact is that Del Bosque's side's style is predictable but only as one can assume that they will dominate possession of the ball and be patient in carving out chances. Whether that is boring or not is highly debatable.
There is no doubt that the reigning champions will remain favourites to retain their title this weekend, but if the two sides play as they did in the semi-finals respectively, another shock could well be on the cards.
These two teams will be extremely familiar with one another having contested their opening match of the tournament, which ended in a stalemate. There were some interesting tactical decisions made in the game, with Italy opting for 3 at the back in the absence of Barzagli and Spain playing without a recognised striker.
However, it would be hard to see the same systems played come Sunday, with Italy growing with every game and settling into a 4-3-1-2 system extremely nicely in the latter stages. Del Bosque, meanwhile, has been questioned for not knowing whether to field a centre-forward or not, with Negredo doing the case for ‘not’ no harm with a non-existent display against Portugal.
When Spain did bring on Fernando Torres when the two sides met earlier in the month, however, the Chelsea man caused problems for a makeshift Italy backline, and that could see him start this weekend. Makeshift, though, is certainly not a term you could use for Prandelli's fully fit defence, with 4 of the back 5, including keeper Buffon, inspiring an unbeaten season in Serie A for champions Juventus.
Organisation vs Fluidity
Much has been made of Italy's traditional in your face style of play, frustrating teams with drilled defences and not looking to entertain. The fact of the matter is, Prandelli has ensured that they haven't ditched their famed solidity but merely looked to build from it as a base from which to entertain, with the two forwards asked to do very little in terms of tracking. The Azzuri midfield, perhaps more so than the defence, now represents the real steel of the team, getting through a substantial amount of work. The likes of De Rossi (2.4 tackles and 3 interceptions per game) and Marchisio (2.4 tackles and 1.6 interceptions per game) are certainly the unsung heroes for the side.
In Pirlo they have a real master of the pass, with an 88% accuracy, and though many are quick to say he doesn't have the legs anymore he has played every single minute of Italy's tournament so far, including the entirety of extra time against England. He can keep possession as well as play direct balls to the target man, with a tournament high of 9.8 long passes per game, but now also has further creative options up field in Montolivo and Cassano.
A comparison of the player positions of the two sides in the semis shows just how organised Italy are, yet remaining flexible to flit between tactics, while Spain have far more freedom in their movement. Their map vs Portugal shows as many as 5 players in and around the centre circle, which of course doesn't mean that they are stationed in the middle, but constantly switching positions from side to side.
Del Bosque asks his players rotate in attack but also likes his full-backs to bomb on, with Jordi Alba impressing up to now in particular, with 1.4 dribbles per game the second most of any defender at Euro 2012. They will therefore look to get at Italy's right-back on the day, be it Balzaretti, Abate or Maggio, and Marchisio is likely to be tasked with helping to quash the threat of Iniesta and co., with the Barca-midfielder sharing the unenviable lead for shots without scoring, with 19.
In terms of an individual contest, many will be keen to see who comes out on top in the battle of the midfield maestros, with arguably the two greatest passers in the game right now going head to head, as Andrea Pirlo meets Xavi. Going into the tournament, the naive will have overlooked Pirlo's impact on a rejuvenated Juve side and in turn his pivotal role in the national set-up. Xavi, meanwhile, is lauded the world round, and rightly so, but has the pendulum now swung in favour of the Italian.
Form suggests that this is the case, with the WhoScored ratings from the tournament so far indicating Pirlo's growing dominance on the competition since the opener against Xavi's Spain. In contrast, the Barca-man was imperious against Italy but has faded since; completing a mortal's tally of 70 passes in the semi-final. The Spaniard's will be mindful, however, that Xavi was on another level against Italy last time out, with 107 passes helping him to his best rating of 7.82 at the tournament, with Pirlo's modest tally of 39 leading to his worst, yet still impressive rating of 7.18.