Euro 2012 may well, in a few years, be considered a footballing pinnacle within its specific sporting context. To seal the deal with sporting destiny, Spain and Italy can present the game with an outstanding final here in Kiev on Sunday.
Poland and Ukraine have provided an unusual stage for the European Championship finals. The friendly willingness of organising staff and populations has been occasionally at odds with infrastructural weaknesses.
The ultimate image of any sporting event, however, is the action itself. On this basis Euro 2012 has been an outstanding success.
Fans saw very few games in which one side was outclassed; the Irish Republic being crushed by Spain was one such. But that was a game in which the credit was all to Spain, reigning world and European champions.
Even Sweden and Greece, who might have played conservatively, happy just to be present, contributed to the fun and games: Sweden with their bright second half in a 3-2 defeat by England and then by overturning France; Greece with their talent for mid-match resurrection as displayed against Poland in the opening match and then by stunning Russia.
In an era when the team is king, Euro 2012 stepped back in time by providing a stage on which Cristiano Ronaldo rose above the generally high technical standards to a different individual plane altogether. His virtuosity shone out, above all in the first round against Holland, in a manner which was quite “old fashioned”.
Significantly, it was when his Portugal pals were kept too busy confronting Spain in midfield that they had no time to provide him with enough bullets to fire.
Hence their semi-final in Donetsk ended goalless and Spain won on penalties to reach the final against an Italian side who had needed the shootout system themselves earlier to dismiss England in the quarter-finals.
Italy and Spain had met in the Group C opener in Gdansk; that was a game which oozed class and ended all-square, perfectly properly, at 1-1.
Spain, under father-figure coach Vicente Del Bosque, are much the same as the team that won the European title in 2008 (1-0 against Germany in the final) and the World Cup in 2010 (1-0 again against Holland).
They have been weakened by the injury absences of veteran captain and centre-back Carles Puyol and top-scoring striker David Villa.
They retain, however, the ability to mesmerise opponents with their obsessive command of midfield possession and the twinkle-toed inter-passing of Barcelona playmakers Xavi and Andres Iniesta. A remarkable supporting cast from Real Madrid is led by midfield anchor Xavi Alonso, exuberant centre-back Sergio Ramos and ever-secure goalkeeper-captain Iker Casillas.
Spain’s tactical foundation is fixed: four at the back and five or even six in midfield depending on whether Del Bosque decides to go without an orthodox striker. Del Bosque is no fan of Chelsea centre-forward Fernando Torres, though he scored twice against Ireland, and Alvaro Negredo looked like a fish out of water against Portugal until he was withdrawn early in the second half.
Italy coach Cesare Prandelli — who hailed the 2-1 semi-final win over Germany as the “most wonderful game of my career” — has varied his tactics depending on opposition and injuries. He has vacillated between three or four at the back with four or five in midfield plus controversial Mario Balotelli and eel-like Antonio Cassano up in attack.
This is an unusual Italian team. Commanded by their own goalkeeper-captain in Gigi Buffon and guided further forward by the imperious Andrea Pirlo, they are set up to press forward at every opportunity.
This is a near-revolutionary, if not almost heretical, strategy for any Italian team.
Prandelli may be tempted to play three at the back so he can match Spain man for man in midfield. The longer the game goes without a goal, however, the more Prandelli will need to be alert to Spain’s ability to turn possession into danger with ever-ready substitute wingers in Jesus Navas and Pedro.
Italy will rely for goals on the tempestuous Balotelli.
Opinions about the Manchester City youngster vary between the extremes of genius and clown.
He dedicated his two semi-final goals against Germany to his adoptive mother and promised another, in the final, for his father. In that case Balotelli would become the finals’ top scorer. At the moment he is level on three with Alan Dzagoev, Mario Gomez and Ronaldo who are all back home in Russia, Germany and Portugal respectively.
No Italian has ever emerged from the European finals as leading marksman and Balotelli does boast a happy knack of marking the big occasion. This past season he helped Manchester City win the English league title for the first time since 1968. By a strange twist of fate, that was also the last time Italy won the European title.
Against the twin powers of Balotelli and coincidence, Spain will exert their own ambition in pursuit of history.
No national team has ever won three major crowns in a row. West Germany in the 1970s and France at the century’s turn were holders, simultaneously, of both single World Cups and European titles; Brazil, despite winning the World Cups of 1958 and 1960, were “only” runners-up at the Copa America in between.
It’s no good looking to the referee for omens. Pedro Proenca — the first Portuguese to control a Euro final — balanced his charge of Spain’s first-round win over Ireland with his control of Italy’s out-shooting of England.
The final is more likely to go the way of Proenca’s second match than his first.