When Spain and Italy met in the opening round of Group C play, almost no one pegged the match as a potential preview of the Euro 2012 Final (Sunday, 2:45 p.m. ET, ESPN). Because of their poor performance at the 2010 World Cup with a number of the same players, some even tipped them to fail to beat Croatia to qualification from the group.
Italy have exceeded everyone's expectations since, avoiding defeat in all five of their matches. They've actually drawn more than they've won to get to this point, but they haven't done it by playing for draws. They were not negative against Spain or Croatia, and they were the considerably more aggressive team in their draw with England. Cesare Prandelli has kept Italy practical and mindful of defending, but they're not the negative Italy of old. He's done an excellent job of creating a balanced team, and it's that balance that has them in the final.
Last Game: Spain 0-0 Portugal | Italy 2-1 Germany
Prandelli used a back three against Spain that he's since abandoned, though it's not entirely clear why. Injuries, an average performance against Croatia and a tactical reason to play a back four over the last three games would all be reasonable explanations for the change. Italy has all of their players back from injuries and suspensions, so Prandelli could opt to go back to the team that got him a 1-1 draw against La Roja, a result that would suit them just fine this time around as well.
Spain's biggest team selection revolves around the center forward position, as the other 10 starting spots are more or less set in stone. Fernando Llorente should be a consideration, but probably isn't. Alvaro Negredo could make another start, but he was very average in his surprise appearance against Portugal. Fernando Torres seems to be out of favor with Vicente del Bosque at the moment, so the most likely starter is the man who started the first match against Italy, Cesc Fabregas.
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Because Spain have flirted with various forward options during the tournament while Italy have changed formations and personnel as well, so the final could look entirely different from the Group C match between the two teams, but a carbon copy of the opener seems likely. Both teams are comfortable in possession and are inconsistent in the goal-scoring department, so a 0-0 or 1-1 draw that's light on scoring chances and shot volume seems likely.
Of course, both teams are inconsistent, but not poor and lacking in talent up top. There's always the possibility that del Bosque could decide to give Llorente a run-out, while Torres' performance against Ireland was an indication that he's still capable of putting together a spectacular performance occasionally. Going the other way, Mario Balotelli could hit 10 shots off target just as easily as he could score a hat trick. He'll be the most talented forward on the pitch for either team, but it's impossible to predict what he's going to bring to the table from game to game.
Projected Italy Lineup (3-5-2): Gianluigi Buffon; Giorgio Chiellini, Daniele De Rossi, Leonardo Bonucci; Federico Balzaretti, Riccardo Montolivo, Andrea Pirlo, Claudio Marchisio, Ignazio Abate; Antonio Cassano, Mario Balotelli.
Monty the Psychic Metal Disk says: Is an upset on the cards? 1-1 draw, Italy wins on penalties.
Game Date/Time: Sunday, July 1, 2:45 p.m. ET, 8:45 p.m. local
Venue: Olympic Stadium, Kiev, Ukraine
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