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Spain v Italy: 3 key battles that will decide the championship

Xavi, Pirlo, Iniesta, Balotelli. With this cast, there’s some pretty tasty match-ups on the cards in Kiev tomorrow night.

THE INDIVIDUAL BATTLES that will help determine the outcome of tomorrow’s Euro 2012 final between Italy and defending champions Spain at the Olympic Stadium in Kiev:

Tony Marshall/EMPICS Sport

Andres Iniesta (ESP) v Christian Maggio (ITA)

Suspended for the semi-final victory over Germany, Italy right-back Maggio will compete with Ignazio Abate for the right to start in Sunday’s final, when he is likely to come up against the in-form Iniesta. Whether deployed as a wing-back in a 3-5-2 system or as a more conventional right-back in a back four, Maggio’s chief defensive responsibility will be to keep tabs on the roaming Barcelona midfielder.

Iniesta’s tendency to drift infield will force Maggio onto his weaker left foot, and the Napoli man is likely to require support from his colleagues in central midfield. Maggio likes to attack but he will also need to be aware of the over-lapping runs of Spanish left-back Jordi Alba, who stormed forwards to set up Xabi Alonso’s opening goal in the 2-0 quarter-final victory over France.

Xabi Alonso (ESP) v Daniele De Rossi (ITA)

Having been deployed at the heart of a three-man defence in Italy’s first two games, De Rossi has since returned to his preferred role in central midfield. Although he has played in defence on occasion for club side Roma, the 28-year-old is more accomplished in the middle of the pitch and his aggressive tackling helped set the tone for the 2-1 victory over Germany in Warsaw.

With Xavi short of form, Xabi Alonso has emerged as the key creative force in the reigning champions’ midfield. Italy coach Cesare Prandelli will not want the gifted Real Madrid organiser to be given too much time on the ball and one of De Rossi’s chief responsibilities will be to deny Alonso space.

Sergio Ramos (ESP) v Mario Balotelli (ITA)

The enfant terrible of Italian football, Balotelli stamped his mark on the competition with a fine brace against Germany — a powerful header followed by an emphatic finish that left goalkeeper Manuel Neuer rooted to the spot. Long maligned for his indiscipline, the Manchester City striker earned praise from Prandelli for his selfless work at the tip of the Italian attack.

“I really believe that a team need to have an idea about the way they play and he really subscribes to this playing style,” said Prandelli after the Germany game. He played high up the pitch and made himself available, and I think he put in a very good performance.”

The partnership between Balotelli and Antonio Cassano is liable to give Spain’s defenders headaches, with both men prone to drift wide, obliging their markers to move out of position. Ramos and fellow centre-back Gerard Pique must also be alert to high balls over the top of the Spanish defence, as Italy possess pinpoint passers in the shape of Pirlo and Riccardo Montolivo.

Pic: Tony Marshall/EMPICS Sport

Xavi (ESP) v Andrea Pirlo (ITA)

It is rare for playmakers to find themselves in direct opposition to each other, but Pirlo’s habitual positioning in front of the Italian defence means he will be operating in the same territory as Spain’s chief schemer, Xavi.

Pirlo has been one of the stars of the tournament and received the man-of-the-match award after both Italy’s penalty shoot-out win over England in the quarter-finals and the last-four success against Germany.

“He is indispensable — the avenue down which all moves go in whichever team he is in,” says former Italy coach Giovanni Trapattoni.

The 33-year-old Pirlo configures his side’s attacks with strafing passes from deep positions and Xavi, perhaps in tandem with Spain’s starting striker, will need to cut out those passes before they are launched.

Xavi’s failure to impose himself at the tournament has been symptomatic of Spain’s toils in attack, but he will only need an inch of room to punish Italy and remind the world of his quality.

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