Spain and Italy are good teams, and they're going to start 22 good players at the Euro 2012 final on Sunday. You may be surprised to learn that two teams who have made it to the final of a major competition undefeated are filled with very good players, but that's OK, because now you know. While watching these 22 good players, you might try to ascertain information about which ones are gooder than good, or at the very least, the most interesting. Here are four players you should keep an eye on throughout the match.
If Italy manage to take the final to extra time and Pirlo has a solid game, he's almost certainly going to win the player of the tournament award. Antonio Cassano and Riccardo Montolivo have helped to ease his creative burden a bit, but he's still Italy's best passer, and he starts moves that lead to goals.
Even when he's not creating goals, he's at least helping his team to keep the ball away from the other team in spots where average players would turn the ball over. He's absolutely brilliant at turning out of traffic and finding an open teammate to pass to. He's not terribly mobile anymore at 33 years old, but his touch and positioning are still exquisite.
There isn't a name here because no one knows who Spain is going to start at striker. It will probably be Cesc Fabregas, but it could be Alvaro Negredo, it might possibly be Fernando Torres, and hey, maybe Vicente del Bosque will finally take his best striker off the bench and hand a shock start to Fernando Llorente.
Whoever starts up top for Spain is going to be an indicator of what del Bosque is trying to achieve and how he views Italy. If Fabregas starts, he thinks he needs to flood the midfield and keep possession. If Torres starts, he wants someone who is going to run at goal. If Negredo starts, he wants a true striker who will hold the ball up better than Torres.
In theory, at least. It wouldn't shock anyone if del Bosque was just drinking a fifth of scotch, saying 'F--- IT' and picking names out of a hat.
Chiellini has recently recovered from a nagging injury to get fit, and he'll probably start for Italy no matter how they set up. Because Christian Maggio has returned from suspension and Ignazio Abate has returned to fitness, Federico Balzaretti will move back to left back and Chiellini will not start as a fullback.
The Juventus man has had a mixed tournament thus far. He was solid against Spain in the opening game of the tournament, but was at fault for Croatia's equalizer in the tournament's second game. He's probably more comfortable in a back three than in a back four, so he's especially worth keeping an eye on due to the recent formation shift. Prandelli has said he's not reverting to the back three.
At 32 years old, Xavi Hernandez might be entering a downswing in his career, but he's still the best passer that Spain have and arguably the best passer in the world. He's playing higher up the pitch for Spain than he's used to playing for Barcelona and, even though he hasn't been his usual world-beating self in this tournament, he's handled the adjustment very well.
If Spain are going to create a goal from open play, it's probably going to come from Xavi passing forward. If it looks like almost all of his passes are going sideways or backward in the early going, prepare for a potential 45-minute Spanish keepaway session in the first half.
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