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Jun 29, 2012

Spain v. Italy: Tale of the tape

Most sports have relatively straightforward ways of evaluating matchups. In boxing, you measure tangible elements: height, weight, wingspan, reach. In baseball, you get wild with ERA, OBP, BABIP and other ornate and elaborate acronyms.

Soccer has plenty of similar metrics -- the obvious (goals for, goals against, possession) and the not-so (record when scoring first), yet when trying to break down the Euro 2012 final, absolutely none of those helps to distinguish Spain, the defending Euro and world champion, from Italy, the 2006 World Cup winner. Not even close. Forget passing percentages and meters covered; they will help to divine some differences and ways in which the managers, Spain's Vicente Del Bosque and Italy's Cesare Prandelli, may prep their teams for Sunday's game, but I'm more concerned with form.

Humor me for a minute. The numbers tell an intriguing tale, but in a 90-minute, winner-take-all environment, it comes down to how teams and their players perform.

Form is elusive. Form is tough to coach or defend. Form is confidence. Form goes hand-in-hand with momentum and it seems as if the two finalists are on very different trajectories. While Spain has lagged in the knockouts -- facing France and Portugal yielded a pair of dull wins, one easy, the other more labored -- Italy's effervescence in attack and on defense has grown. Defeating England was a battle of will backed with confidence that the Azzurri had the class to prevail. Overcoming Germany was perfect execution of an aggressive scheme.

Fatigue was meant to be a deciding issue in the semis, yet the two teams playing on less rest (48 hours between games) prevailed. Italy hasn't yet lost to Spain at a major tournament, winning three games and drawing four.

The point is that all of the above only matters as much as the players and coaching staffs let it. With that in mind, who has the edge on Sunday?

Goalkeepers

Spain and Italy are blessed with the best in the world, a pair of stoppers both regal, forceful and unafraid. Where Iker Casillas is slightly more fallible under the high ball, Gianluigi Buffon is perhaps marginally less agile. Yet each man has impeccable reflexes and has been in these kinds of pressurized situations before. And thrived.

Ultimately, Buffon's been tested more in the past two games than Casillas, including an instinctual close-range parry of Glen Johnson's scuffed shot in the quarterfinal, and several key stops Thursday as the Germans tried to get back in the game. And given the danger of in-game lulls with regard to softening reaction times, Buffon seems more in-tune at present. Edge: Italy

Defense

With the two stingiest defenses at Euro 2012 -- Italy's clean-sheet run ended at 318 minutes with Mesut Ozil's injury-time penalty, while Spain hasn't conceded in 419 minutes -- it's another impossible call.

Style-wise, there's little separation, either. For Spain, Sergio Ramos has slotted in next to Gerard Pique at center back with consummate ease, while Jordi Alba (who found time to sign with Barcelona following Spain's semifinal win) has been a marauding, indefatigable revelation on the left. Prandelli has made several tweaks to his Azzurri back four (or three) due to minor injuries, but the quartet that largely manhandled Germany was awesome to watch: Giorgio Chiellini, all sweat and perfect timing deputizing at left back; Federico Balzaretti guest-starring on the right and looking comfortable against Marco Reus and Philipp Lahm; the taciturn strength of Chiellini's fellow Juventus stars Andrea Barzagli and Leonardo Bonucci. Bonucci flinched, but didn't submit to Miroslav Klose.

Both defenses boast style, fury and experience, and work well as units given their familiarity from club soccer: Ramos, Casillas and likely right back Alvaro Arbeloa all play at Real Madrid, while four of Italy's back five hail from Juve.

Edge: Too close to call

Midfield

Spain's biggest strength, but not an area in which Italy lacks, either.

Much has been written -- and the words will continue to pile up -- about what Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Xabi Alonso, David Silva and Sergio Busquets do for La Roja. The intangibles are provided by Cesc Fabregas (who can play as a "striker"), Jesus Navas (his wing play stretches defenses thin) and Santi Cazorla (he adds pace) should Del Bosque care to experiment.

Their strength is the slow-played hand, the careful guarding of possession and steady stewardship of an opponent's half, each well-placed pass building pressure until an opening reveals itself.

Italy can grind out a gentle tempo, too, via Andrea Pirlo and Claudio Marchisio, but in Daniele De Rossi and Riccardo Montolivo, there is a notable change of pace. De Rossi and sub option Thiago Motta are disruptive forces that wrest possession from opponents and draw fouls; Montolivo and alternates Alessandro Diamanti and Antonio Nocerino are direct, head-for-goal runners whose passing range and crossing can set Azzurri strikers free.

The edge should go to the team that can retain more of the ball -- not simply the art of having it, but the fact that it allows a team to dictate the rhythm of the game. But given Del Bosque's wealth of resources in the middle of the pitch, you have to back the current champs. After all, Spain ground France into a dispirited dust with such control that you'd be forgiven for mistaking Les Bleus players for a training exercise.

Edge: Spain

Up Front

How can we accurately gauge Spain's strike force if Del Bosque continues to ignore it? It's lamentable that Fernando Llorente and his aerial, physical prowess can't get a game -- it seems his only crime is being born into a national-team system that abhors banging in crosses -- while the sustained subs' bench purgatory for Fernando Torres and Alvaro Negredo is much easier to understand. Torres did score twice, albeit against Ireland, but the gambit of using Negredo against Portugal failed miserably. Pepe and Bruno Alves manhandled the Sevilla man, prompting Del Bosque to quickly revert to his much-mocked "4-6-0" for much of the final hour. Such is the issue of having such natural strikers on a squad known for midfield play; everything breaks down around the box as the forwards are unable to know how to match and blend with their teammates' artistry and movement. Hence why Fabregas has been used so much as that false nine; it's arguably easier for a ball-playing midfielder to improvise around goal than it is to expect Torres to drop deep and play the killer pass.

Italy, meanwhile, has no such trouble. Not only is Mario Balotelli in great form, but the other forwards, Antonio Cassano and Antonio Di Natale, have proved excellent foils in the attacking third. The trio has been wasteful at times -- five goals on 47 shots, 28 of which were on target -- but the fact that a team traditionally known for its defense is getting so many open looks around the box bodes well for the final. It's there for the taking.

Edge: Italy

Bench

The Spaniards are stacked with potential influencers -- lanky striker Llorente, the inventive Juan Mata, Navas' lung-bursting pace and persistence on the wing, Pedro's close control and clever play on the ball -- yet Del Bosque isn't too interested in giving them minutes unless absolutely necessary.

Italy's reserves don't have the same impact, though all add dimension to the Azzurri's fluid plans. Di Natale brings added pace up front, Diamanti will attack at every opportunity, and Motta and Nocerino are kings at helping to close down opponents and close out games. Something for every situation at Prandelli's call.

Still, quality over quantity here.

Edge: Spain

Managers

As Jeff Carlisle noted in previewing the final four managers, there's a definite contrast. Del Bosque is the king, the been-there, done-that tactician with a prickly persona and a commitment to play to La Roja's strengths no matter the outcome. Spain hasn't lost, as a result, but there is a groundswell of people calling Spain "boring," despite this being one of the best national teams in history.

For Del Bosque, consistency is key: Only 13 men have started the five games so far at Euro 2012 -- the two extras were both strikers, sharing minutes with Fabregas -- with the same three subs (Navas, Cazorla, Pedro plus a brief Javi Martinez cameo) rotated through as necessary.

Compare that with the maverick Prandelli, whose hand was forced by injuries and yellow cards. Just five players from the 23-man squad have not featured at key moments in the Euros, with all others (including 16 starters) seeing significant game time. Formations have been juggled and players deployed out of position, but it hasn't disrupted the confidence of the squad.

Yet there is a downside to too much tinkering, as Joachim Loew and Germany found out in their semifinal defeat. Is Prandelli's flexibility better or worse than Del Bosque's settled, unflappable game plans when the game is on the line?

Edge: Too close to call

Off the field

Spain is trying to add another accolade to its modern-day dynasty, while Italy is determined to end another domestic scandal on an uplifting note. It's the practiced art of winning versus a team that is anxious to exorcise its World Cup 2010 demons and reclaim a sense of pride in international soccer. If you believe that it's easier to play as the underdog or surpass expectations, as opposed to confirming them, then the Azzurri also hold that advantage.

Seemingly invincible teams were made to be toppled. The New England Patriots, Chelsea's three-plus undefeated run at Stamford Bridge, Barcelona's grip on La Liga: All eventually fell, and the sporting landscape was better off for it.

Edge: Italy

Overall

The Azzurri match up well with the incumbents in a number of areas -- strong goalkeeper, settled defense, flair in midfield -- and even surpass Spain with regard to strike options.

Though it's unseemly to pick against the defending champion, I'd say Italy holds the advantage given its uptick in form and execution in the knockout stages, the genial genius of Prandelli, the confidence of Balotelli and Pirlo's magic in the middle.

But Spain's crown is still reinforced by the likes of Iniesta, who is in sparkling form; David Silva, who has the tools to outwit Italy's backline; and Fabregas, who has proved to be an unlikely hero.

All of this uncertainty and intrigue will make for a combustible, gripping Sunday in Kiev, as the two best teams at Euro 2012 bring a great tournament to a close.

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