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Preview: Modern Italians stand in way of historic Spanish win

Miguel Delaney is in Kiev examining what makes the Euro 2012 finalists tick.

Image: Antonio Calanni/AP/Press Association Images

SPAIN ARE ON the brink of history.

Italy, however, are on the brink of a truly remarkable tournament win. And they’ve done that thanks to Cesare Prandelli’s masterful exploitation of the here and now.

The Italian manager has undeniably proven himself the finest tactician in the tournament.

Tonight, for the second time in this tournament, he will have to illustrate it again in order to actually defeat Spain.

That is the thing about the opening-game performance. Although Italy were rightfully lauded for giving Spain more problems than any team over the last four years, they didn’t actually beat them. What’s more, as dangerous as they were, they were still dependent on Fernando Torres missing a trio of late chances.

Will such fortune be on Italy’s side tonight again?

To be fair, they dynamics of the game have shifted somewhat since that 1-1 in Gdansk.

For one, Italy have grown in both confidence and momentum, culminating in that exceptional victory over Germany.

They have also been somewhat out of sync with the rest of the tournament given that they enjoy a trio of strikers, who are all on form and scoring goals – not least Mario Balotelli.

That, of course, is in stark contrast to the Spanish, who refuse to even use their strikers.

Indeed, the more laboured play of the Spanish attack has best illustrated the fatigue which is beginning to affect the team.

In the semi-final against Portugal, they were misplacing more passes and miscontrolling more balls than ever before.

Clearly a superior side to the Italians in a technical sense, the Spanish may suddenly see all of these issues bridge the gap.

Or, all the tension and anxiety might finally evaporate now they’ve reached the final. It has happened before with Vicente Del Bosque’s side, not least in extra-time of that semi-final against Portugal.

Serene

At the very least, they’re unlikely to be as so evidently exhausted as they were in that match. They will have got to prepare in a much more serene manner, without the ludicrous travel plans that so needlessly filled those four days between the French and Portuguese games.

That, too, may give them a new lease of life.

There’s also the fact that Spain are unlikely to lease the ball to Italy for very long. And that could have more of an effect than usual.

This Italy have been so impressive, after all, precisely because they have successfully adopted Spain’s possession approach and grown more confident with it. On the eve of the German semi-final, Prandelli said it would show a “lack of maturity” to revert to a more classically Italian reserved style.

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Tonight, with the Italian manager already accepting that his team will not take charge of this game, they’re going to have to compromise.

This is where it gets intriguing. Will Prandelli again be able to strike a balance between protecting his defence but also troubling Spain’s in the face of so much Spanish possession?

At the least, all of Antonio Di Natale, Antonio Cassano and Ballotelli look very lively on the break. Here, too, Andrea Pirlo’s long passes may prove crucial even if he sees much less of the ball himself.

That directness will likely be offset by Spain’s more convoluted attack. Attempting to draw out defences that sit so deeply, Del Bosque will – maybe mistakenly – probably revert to the 4-3-3-0.

The idea behind that is that Andres Iniesta, David Silva and Cesc Fabregas all interchange in order to pull defenders out of position. The reality is often somewhat different.

Don’t be surprised if Spain do their usual, start slow and then, by bringing on a striker late on, burst into life. It will be a massive surprise, however, if they don’t completely control the game.

Furthermore, there’s the fact that they still haven’t conceded a knock-out goal since 2006.

All of that should mean that they just about push themselves over the line again.

It will also put them on a pedestal all of their own.

Key battle: the centre of the pitch, as Italy will seek to congest Spain’s supply lines?

Key question: can Prandelli strike a successful balance between protecting his defence and piercing Spain on the break?

Recent scoring form: Spain 2.6 goals a game; Italy 1.5 goals a game

Recent defensive form: Spain 0.4 goals conceded a game; Italy 0.5 goals a game

History lesson: Spain have never beaten Italy in a tournament match. They have, however, eliminated them once and that happened the last time these two teams met in this very competition. Spain won a penalty shoot-out after the 0-0 draw in Vienna in the Euro 2008 quarter-finals.

Pointers

  • This is a battle between the two best defensive records in Euro 2012
  • As well as a historic third international trophy in a row, Spain are aiming for their record third European Championships
  • Italy are aiming for only their second European Championship

Prediction: Spain 1-0 Italy

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