Euro 2012: Italy's Road to the Final

Their tournament began as it will finish; against Spain.

Italy meet Spain in the Euro 2012 Final on Sunday, with Cesare Prandelli€™s men the last capable of stopping the Spaniards winning their third consecutive major international trophy. This is a look back at their journey to the Final and what to expect from the game at the Olympic Stadium in Kiev. Their tournament began as it will finish; against Spain. Cesare Prandelli took a chance on a 3-5-2 formation that he had been toying with in the absence of usual left-back Domenico Criscito, excluded to deal with a betting scandal surrounding him in Russia. Meanwhile Vicente Del Bosque set out a 4-6-0, preferring six midfielders to an orthodox striker like Fernando Torres or Fernando Llorente. While Xavi and Andres Iniesta were not completely stopped in their tracks, the Italian system worked efficiently enough to allow the Azzurri to keep the score at 0-0 by half time. After controversial forward Mario Balotelli spurned two glorious chances to break the deadlock, he was replaced by Antonio Di Natale. Minutes later, the substitute gave them the lead. Latching onto the end of Andrea Pirlo€™s cutting through ball, Di Natale scooped his effort over the advancing Iker Casillas€™ shoulder and into the net. The lead was very short, lasting just four minutes, as Cesc Fabregas slotted home David Silva€™s cross past Italy captain Gianluigi Buffon. The match ended 1-1, with late chances for Torres and Iniesta doing little to test the goalkeeper. The next fixture against Croatia was a tough encounter. Slaven Bilic€™s resilient squad were more than ready to counter Prandelli€™s new formation, and could have gained early qualification but for the fact that Italy held them to a 1-1 draw. A free-kick from Pirlo gave the favourites the lead after 39 minutes but it was cancelled out by Mario Mandzukic€™s second goal of the tournament 15 minutes from the end. The result left both sides unsure as to their future in the competition. With only two points Italy faced potential exclusion if they couldn€™t hammer the Republic of Ireland. Even worse, if Spain drew 2-2 with Croatia in Gdansk then the Azzurri could fire 10 past Shay Given and would still go home. Italy changed their line-up to a 4-1-3-2 with Antonio Cassano and Di Natale leading the line and Balotelli left fuming on the bench. The Irish, already eliminated, started in similar fashion to their previous games in a 4-4-2 formation. As expected, Italy were far superior to the lacklustre Ireland, whose fans were as spirited as ever. Robbie Keane and Kevin Doyle hardly saw the ball as their side failed to register a single shot on goal. Cassano opened the scoring after 35 minutes, heading home Pirlo€™s near post corner. Damien Duff tried desperately to clear the ball off the line after Given had diverted the ball his way but couldn€™t stop it creeping in. In the second half Italy continued to frustrate their opponents and it got worse for the Irish as Keith Andrews was shown a red card for two bookable offences. The midfielder, released by West Brom at the end of the season, stormed back to the dressing room kicking bottles and advertising boards as he went. Balotelli was brought on before the end and sealed the win in superb style, volleying home a corner and celebrating by gesturing to the Italian coach. Luckily, Leonardo Bonucci was on hand to stop Balotelli€™s childish rant by covering his teammate€™s mouth. After news of Croatia€™s defeat in Poznan filtered through, the Italians celebrated qualification. A day later they learnt that they would face England in the Quarter-Finals. The Quarter-Final was hotly contested, with both sides testing one another to the limit. Joe Hart produced a number of saves and Daniele De Rossi struck the post before, after 120 minutes of action, penalties were needed to separate the sides. Balotelli scored Italy€™s first penalty before Steven Gerrard levelled for England. Hart then saw Riccardo Montolivo€™s spot-kick swerve past his left post. With fans convinced that their penalty nightmares might finally be over, Wayne Rooney smashed home England€™s second and put them 2-1 up. Then Andrea Pirlo produced a moment of brilliance that confirmed his already incredible reputation. He neatly chipped the ball into the centre of the goal with Hart flinging himself to his right and then stopping to smile disbelievingly at Pirlo€™s confidence. Ashley Young was next to try his luck for the English, after putting in a poor performance on the pitch he had a chance for redemption from 12 yards. However the Manchester United winger powered his kick against the crossbar and the score remained 2-2. Antonio Nocerino calmly converted Italy€™s fourth penalty and Ashley Cole stepped up to take England€™s equivalent. Cole€™s shot was poor and Buffon was able to stop it easily, giving his team a vital 3-2 advantage. England fans everywhere were once again put in a familiar position; if Italy scored then they would go through. Hart stood watching as former West Ham striker Alessandro Diamanti placed the ball on the spot. Diamanti struck the ball firmly into the left corner with Hart scrambling to the right and Italy won. England fans found comfort in the fact that Germany would probably steamroll any opponent in the Semi-Final. Italy, however, didn€™t stick to the script. Prandelli€™s side came out fast and strong, beating German players to the ball whenever they could and forcing their attacks on Manuel Neuer€™s goal. Balotelli finally acted his age and played his best game of the tournament. First he headed home Cassano€™s cross from the left and then blasted a second past the dumbstruck Neuer before half time. Despite Mesut Ozil€™s last minute penalty the German€™s couldn€™t overcome the courageous Italian performance and the final whistle confirmed the Azzurri€™s place in the Final. In the Final Italy face Spain in a Group C rematch to decide who walks away with the European Championship. Italy have won the trophy once (1968), Spain twice (1964, 2008) and both have been runners-up to France before. The question is; will Prandelli decide to continue the 3-5-2 that saw the previous match end 1-1 or opt for an organised 4-5-1 and let Balotelli lead the charge? Kick-off is at 19:45 on Sunday 1st July.
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Football Writer. Stratford AFC Goalkeeper. Writing articles, interviews, analysis, reviews and anything else that comes up.