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Jul 1, 2012

Predicting a winner

It's all over now, barring the Euro 2012 final itself. Storylines are set, players are prepped and managers are winding down on their tactics and adjustments. Yet our staff and contributors still had plenty to say about what might happen in Kiev on Sunday (ESPN, WatchESPN.com, 2:45 p.m. ET) between defending champ Spain and challenger Italy.

 

Roger Bennett, ESPN columnist

And so we are back where we began with Italy taking on Spain, following its finely poised contest that ended 1-1 in the group stage.

The only thing I am sure of is that we are in for a treat.  This is going to be a positive final featuring two teams hellbent on imposing their brand of football on the game. 

The clash will be a tactical delight. Much will revolve around Italy's decision to play three or four men at the back -- it played a 3-5-2 to gain a draw in the opening game but has evolved into a 4-4-2 since then, which allows them to control the center of the field yet leaves them vulnerable on the flanks. Meanwhile, the Spanish team is a marvel. To retain its collective focus through the crucible of three consecutive tournaments is an achievement of wonder. 

The only thing I know for sure is that Gigi Buffon will win the singing of the national anthems. After that, the game seems so tightly balanced, pitting the passion and nuanced power of the Italians against the Spanish geometric possession game. It is extremely hard to call. 

I have bet against Spain in almost every game since the 2010 World Cup elimination round began. The physical and mental toll it takes to keep winning cannot be described, not even factoring in the element of luck you need to push above and beyond. I have always believed this run must end at some point; I have been wrong every time. Based on that experience, I will bet on Spain's default score like one of Pavlov's dogs: Spain 1, Italy 0.

 

John Brewin, Soccernet senior editor

"Italians do it better," or so says the slogan. And what Italy often does better than its European footballing counterparts is win international football tournaments. Kiev on Sunday could well see the Azzurri stopping Spain in its history-seeking tracks and win only their second European championship to go with a haul of four World Cups. Italy began slowly, if not badly, and is now building to a crescendo.

Call it old world, but I see Italy winning because it has two strikers in form and Spain has precisely none, even if it is due to the personal choice of Vicente Del Bosque. Mario Balotelli does not fear the big occasion, plus Italy has the best midfielder in the tournament in Andrea Pirlo. Will Spain have to give up its artful experiments and find ways to stop Pirlo? It should. Meanwhile, Cesare Prandelli has other midfielders who can stop Xavi and Andres Iniesta in their tracks, too. Spain will fall short of being history men. Italy 3, Spain 1.

Jeff Carlisle, ESPN columnist

The longer this game goes without a goal, the better it is for Spain given the way it wears teams down with its controlled possession style. This was evident during the group stage encounter between the two teams. Italy played well but looked absolutely gassed toward the end, so it'll need to jump on top early in order to prevail. Fortunately for the Azzurri, they have something that Spain doesn't: forwards in Mario Balotelli and Antonio Cassano who are capable of scoring. Spain, for all of its technical brilliance, hasn't looked all that convincing in front of goal. For that reason, I'm going with Italy to win 1-0 and Cassano getting the lone tally.

Michael Cox, ESPN freelancer contributor, Zonal Marking.net

I’m not expecting a goalfest – both Italy and Spain will attempt to swamp the centre of midfield to dominate the ball, which could lead to a congested midfield zone and a lack of width. If Vicente del Bosque surprises us and plays Jesus Navas or Pedro Rodriguez, the game would be more open. I think it could come down to substitutions, and while Cesare Prandelli is arguably the better tactician, Spain simply have so many attacking options, and I think they’ll go ahead, and stay ahead, after half-time.

David Hirshey, ESPN freelance columnist

Let’s see if I’ve correctly understood the soccer zeitgeist: Spain is boring, soporific, soul-crushing. Italy is vibrant, exciting, life-affirming. Spain plays anti-football, hogs the ball with pointless passes, has no strikers and never shoots. Italy has Super Mario to score wonder goals and the Great Pirlo to stuff opposing midfields into his back pocket.

Is there really any choice? No. Spain 2, Italy 0.  (The soccer zeitgeist can kiss my Ballon D’or. Viva Espana!)

James Horncastle, freelance writer

Only four players have managed to score past Iker Casillas in major tournament knockout matches in the past 10 years: Robbie Keane for Ireland in 2002 and Franck Ribery, Patrick Vieira and Zinedine Zidane for France in 2006. It's a remarkable record because while Spain protects Casillas so very well by keeping the ball with their Tiki-Takanaccio, Iker more often than not is one of La Roja's most decisive players, making crucial saves at crucial moments.

Casillas has not conceded in 79 of his 136 caps for Spain, 100 of which have now ended in victory. Yet if Spain is to win its third major tournament in a row, it must get past Casillas' equal and one true rival, Gianluigi Buffon. After surpassing Dino Zoff in terms of appearances at major tournaments, Buffon can emulate him by adding a European Championship winners' medal to the one he received after lifting the 2006 World Cup. Back to his brilliant best, it promises to be a fascinating duel between the two best goalkeepers of a generation, perhaps of all time.

Like in the group stage encounter between Spain and Italy, I foresee a 1-1 draw in normal time then penalties like in their Euro 2008 quarterfinal. If it comes to that, the question is: Will Andrea Pirlo or Sergio Ramos have the audacity to attempt another Panenka? Expect Casillas and Buffon to be ready.

James Martin, ESPN.com

A lot of people have underestimated Italy during this tournament. England, for example, seemed to breathe a sigh of relief when it avoided Spain in the quarterfinals, but the Azzurri came through. There’s a cohesiveness and flexibility with Prandelli’s men, starting at the back and ending with two in-form strikers in Cassano and Balotelli. Spain, as we’ve all talked about, seems to lack the cutting edge up top. For La Roja to win this, I think they’ll need to include Cesc Fabregas from the start, and perhaps Pedro too -- Barcelona men who give the side more forward thrust and fluidity. It’s going to be a close one, but there’s something special about this Italian side -- a feeling that it's catching lightning in a bottle -- that leads you to think it’ll win. Prediction: Italy 2, Spain 1.

James Tyler, ESPN.com

How does one pick against the defending champions? Yes, Spain has underwhelmed at times, numbing its natural brio with a tempo-setting, pass-heavy dirge, but my head is overruling my heart in thinking La Roja can still handle an Italy side full of confidence, passion and flair.

Weirdly, the Tiki-Taka dynasty is now positioned as underdog and the mental shift will help relax nerves.

As grand and uplifting as the Azzurri have been since escaping Group C, I think that Vicente Del Bosque's side cements its legacy with another title. Spain 1, Italy 0.

Ravi Ubha, ESPN columnist

Shoddy defending cost Germany in the semifinals. Balotelli, the loopy genius, was allowed too much space and punished the Germans. But Spain's shutout streak is an imposing one; when Spain met Portugal in the semis, the Portuguese didn't really have one good opportunity.

Spain will continue to keep the ball and there's no way La Roja will allow Italian midfield maestro Andrea Pirlo time to operate. Recognized striker or not, Spain will wear down Italy and prevail 2-0. The extra day of rest will come in handy with such a quick turnaround.

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