Time to unfurl “il Tricolore” this evening?

As in 1982 and 2006, when Italian football scaled the heights, nobody predicted a win for the so-called Azzuri at Euro 2012. But amid perhaps unfair criticism that Spain have become “boring”, Italy may become the popular choice to win the competition in Kiev.

Spain are not disliked, but their obsession with possession – training ground football, some say – has prompted a yawn or two throughout Euro 2012. Italy, by contrast, have got better as the competition has progressed and in Andrea Pirlo, they have possibly the player of Euro 2012.

Spain’s style over the past four years into a short-passing game that has seen them field, in this competition, a 4-6-0 formation. Some say this is an arrogant selection while others point to its ultra-sophistication. In 2008 when they beat Germany in the Euro final, they conjured up 27 passes per shot with a possession rate of 57%. In 2010, their first World Cup win, it was 34 passes per shot with 65% of the ball. In Euro 2012, it is 67% possession, 43 passes per shot. And their average number of passes per 90 minutes is an astonishing 692. They average only 16 shots a game.

It’s absolutely efficient – one goal conceded in their five games so far by Vincente Del Bosque’s team – but it does make for a pedestrian game that lacks goalmouth action. This Spain side may be approaching its climax. It’s rare for a team to stay together for more than two tournaments, but players like Casillas, Ramos, Xavi, Torres and Iniesta have been involved in all of the last three (although Torres has been frozen out by the “0” up front).

Italy’s exhilarating display against Germany will have won them a few friends. Mario Balotelli may find when he returns to Premier action, that his superb finishing may change people’s perception of him. Or maybe not.

Italy have tried to remove the shackles that have historically been chained to their footballers (those may be reserved for the players who face trial in the future as their latest scandal gathers momentum).

Italian coach Cesare Prandelli has introduced a little unpredictability and flair to the normal cautious and neurotic style adopted in the past. Pirlo has had a great tournament and somehow has managed to avoid being tied down by opponents who may have underestimated his 33 year-old frame. Balotelli was not only outstanding against Germany but should have had a hatful of goals against England. Antonio Cassano has also been superb.

Spain’s efficiency and Italy’s new-found ambition could result in a classic. It’s an old-fashioned Latin contest and it should give Euro 2012 – never a dull affair – a fitting finale. It’s going to be close, but I have a feeling that the car horns will be louder in Rome, Milan, Turin and Florence this evening.

Likely teams
Spain: Casillas; Arbeloa, Pique, Ramos, Alba; Xavi, Busquets, Alonso, Silva, Fabregas, Iniesta

Italy: Buffon; Bonucci, Barzagli, Chiellini, Balzaretti; Pirlo, Marchisio, Montolivio, De Rossi; Balotelli, Cassano

The Road to Kiev – it started with Italy v Spain

Group – Italy D1-1 (Fabregas)
Group – Ireland W 4-0 (Torres 2, Silva, Fabregas)
Group –  Croatia W1-0 (Navas)
QF – France W2-0 (Alonso 2 -1p)
SF – Portugal D0-0 (won on pens)

Group – Spain D1-1 (Di Natale)
Group – Croatia D1-1 (Pirlo)
Group – Ireland W2-0 (Cassano, Balotelli)
QF – England D 0-0 (won on pens)
SF – Germany W2-1 (Balotelli 2)

Past Meetings – Italy have more than the edge

Only two teams have beaten Spain in the past 16 games – England and Italy. The Italians beat the reigning World and European champions in August 2011 2-1 in Bari in a friendly. Overall, Italy’s record against Spain marks them as something of a bogey team when the game really counts. Not including the Olympics, Spain have only beaten Italy once in competitive games – an on penalties victory in Euro 2008 after a 0-0 draw. They’ve played 29 times in total, with Spain winning 8 times, Italy 10. In World Cup and European Championship ties, they’ve met six times, Italy winning three and Spain one.

Their European Championship Records

Spain – 1960 – Withdrew; 1964 – Winners; 1968 – Did not qualify; 1972 – Did not qualify; 1976 – Did not qualify; 1980 – Group stage; 1984 – Finalists; 1988 – Group stage; 1992-  Did not qualify; 1996 – Quarter Final; 2000 – Quarter Final; 2004 – Group stage; 2008 – Winners

Italy – 1960 – Did not enter; 1964 – Did not qualify; 1968 – Winners; 1972 – Did not qualify; 1976 – Did not qualify; 1980 – Fourth place; 1984 – Did not qualify; 1988 – Semi-Final; 1992-  Did not qualify; 1996 – Group stage; 2000 – Finalists; 2004 – Group stage; 2008 – Quarter Final