And so we come full circle. Three weeks to the day after their opening match of UEFA EURO 2012 against Spain, Italy find themselves in the final, facing the European champions again.
It promises to be an intriguing showpiece for so many reasons. The Azzurri have reached it trying to play the free-flowing, expansive game that their opponents have long since mastered, and are keen to go one better than that day in Gdansk when they took the lead against Vicente del Bosque's side only to be pegged back within minutes. Spain are standing on top of the world, looking down at the rest, but Italy are getting closer and looking to plant their tricolore at the summit.
With their semi-final defeat of Germany, they have already proved they can beat anyone on their day. Beforehand there were concerns over their lack of cutting edge and but those fears were allayed by Mario Balotelli's double. The ruthless German strike force was expertly repelled by a resolute defence. The side Spain face tomorrow is a different animal to the one they encountered on 10 June.
For starters, Italy are now playing with a different formation. Out went the 3-5-2 with which tended to defend too deep and invite pressure; back has come the 4-3-1-2 which poses more problems for the opposition from an offensive point of view.
As Prandelli said yesterday: "We have improved because since the start we've been able to work on our physical fitness. Psychologically speaking we're a real side now." Having plotted Germany's downfall, Prandelli will be studying Spain hard to locate a weakness. If that sounds like an impossible mission he will have been encouraged by Spain's slightly under-par performance against Portugal.
Del Bosque will also have to locate Italy's weakness, and there he may struggle. The 'blocco Juve' incorporating Leonardo Bonucci, Andrea Barzagli, Giorgio Chiellini in defence and Gianluigi Buffon in goal has been almost impregnable. The tenacity embodied by Daniele De Rossi and Claudio Marchisio, allied to Andrea Pirlo's creative genius, has made their midfield a constant source of movement and pressure, while Antonio Cassano's trickery and Balotelli's raw power make for a lethal two-pronged attack.
Del Bosque opted to play without a striker in Gdansk, but Spain looked more threatening when Fernando Torres came on in the second half. Álvaro Negredo started the semi-final but struggled to make an impact. Either way, Prandelli knows that how Spain play is the main problem. "Their tactical game plan changes little," he said. "They are always looking to pass and move, so doesn't matter whether they play a striker or not."
Whatever the lineup, this promises to be a fantastic final between two sides with admirable philosophies. I can't wait to see what happens.
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