5 Essential Keys To The Euro 2012 Championship

The two most recent World Cup champions meet in the ultimate game of this year’s Euro tournament. Here are the five factors that will decide the victorious nation. posted on

1. Will Spain Try And Score?

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For a team that’s known for its beautiful, seamless passing, Spain’s games in Euro 2012 have been mind-numbingly dull. Part of the reason for this has been that no other team, save Portugal and, luckily, Italy, has really been able to compete with the Spaniards — after cruising through group play, they dominated the French and then slipped by the Portuguese in penalty kicks. By dominating possession and articulating the pace of the game, Spain has made its opponents play on their level, and never the other way around.

The other part is that, quite frankly, Spain has had no interest in scoring goals. With a superior midfield, staunch defenders and one of the best keepers in the world in Iker Casillas, Spain has only surrendered two goals in the entire tournament. If you don’t give up goals, there isn’t a huge need to score any of your own; and having left David Villa at home due to injury, Spain’s been content to play in the notorious False 9 formation popularized by Pep Guardiola at Barcelona. (A concern made even easier by the fact that Spain shares so many players with Barca, including lynchpins Xavi, Iniesta, and Cesc Fabregas.) What this means is that Spain doesn’t really play a staunch attack; instead, their center-forward frequently drops deep. And they’ve bypassed Alvaro Negredo and Fernando Torres in favor of midfielder Fabregas up top.

Instead of, you know, actually trying to score goals, Spain has been content to play a free-flowing style in which they basically try to pass their way into the net. Against Italy’s suddenly potent attack, such a conservative approach might be risky. And if Spain decides it’s content to play to PKs again, it will have to contend with Gianluigi Buffon.

2. Who Is More Perfect: Buffon Or Casillas?

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Gianluigi Buffon and Iker Casillas are probably the two best goalkeepers in the world, and they’ve been playing like it at the Euros. As I mentioned, Spain has only surrendered two goals in the five games of the tournament so far; Italy hasn’t been much worse, only letting by three. As Spain uses its wiles to try and slip the ball into the net, Casillas will have to parry more potent attempts from Italy, most likely. And if the game comes down to penalty kicks, as it very well might — the two countries drew their first matchup, and they’ve each won a game in penalties during the knockout round — it’s Buffon and Casillas will decide the day. Both men are truly great, but one has to be better.

3. Will The Rematch Be A Repeat?

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It’s fitting that the last match of Euro 2012 will be a rematch of Spain and Italy’s first. That game ended 1-1, since the group-stage games don’t go into extra time, with Fabregas netting a late goal after Antonio di Natale put Italy up ahead early. One of the themes of the first game was Fernando Torres’ futility, and if Spain gives Torres another chance — no guarantee, considering that he spent the Portugal match on the sidelines — then he’ll be expected to do better.

In many ways, though, Italy outplayed Spain in their first meeting. If this happens again, it’s likely Italy will take the game, considering the superior recent form of Mario Balotelli. But if Spain is able to adjust to Italy’s newfound attacking spirit, and/or if Torres actually plays like he is capable of playing — a reminder of which came in Spain’s trouncing of the Irish — the day should go to Spain. And a blow-for-blow mirroring of the first meeting, resulting in penalty kicks, should favor the Italians as well.

4. Will Spain Succumb To The Pressure Of A Treble?

ANATOLII STEPANOV / Reuters

Italy has nothing to lose on Sunday — although the Azzurri were given as good a chance as any of upsetting the Spaniards or Germans, nobody expected them to take the title. That was thought to be the place of Spain or Germany alone. Fittingly, it was Italy who beat the formidable Germans; now, Spain must look at the giant-killers, who were Spain’s predecessors as World Cup champions, and wonder if they’ll play spoiler again.

Because of their Euro 2008 and World Cup 2010 wins, the Spanish have the chance for an unlikely, and exceedingly difficult, treble if they win 2012’s major tournament. Of course, opportunities to take a trophy like this come few and far in between, so Italy will hardly be playing without pressure. But Spain’s opportunity is a unique one, and if the team plays too fraught with the knowledge of Sunday’s significance, it could weigh them down enough to let Italy take the day.

5. Which Mario Balotelli Will Italy Get?

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To be honest, this could’ve been factors 1-5 and on into infinity. With Balotelli playing at top form, Italy eviscerated the favored Germans and made dominant goalkeeper Manuel Neuer look like an infant. And even at Terminator-level efficiency, Mario still reminded us of his mania by taking off his shirt after netting the latter half of his double. There might not be a better example of the duality of Super Mario than following his rocket-launcher goal with a yellow-carded shirt-shedding, and rest assured that within the minds of the rejoicing Italians lies a deep-seated worry.

Balotelli’s physical dominance and explosiveness gives Italy its best shot at puncturing the suffocating embrace of Spain’s midfield and defense, and even though the Azzurri managed to tie Spain with Balotelli short of ideal in their first go-around, their hope for a Euro championship largely lies with the blond-mohawked striker. On the other side of that coin, Sergio Ramos might say he’s unfazed by the threat of Balotelli, but until kickoff, he’ll be perpetually occupied with how to stifle the Italians’ top weapon.

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