Spain Vs. Italy, Euro 2012 Final: How Italy Got Here

We'd love to be all dramatic and say that this tournament is ending in the same way it started, with a match between Spain and Italy. But Euro 2012 actually began with Poland drawing with Greece, so let's face the facts and dial it back to when this really started: in South Africa in 2010, with Italy a laughingstock and Spain claiming all the glory.

Too far? OK, OK. Let's start with qualification for Euro 2012. Italy landed in Group C, with such heavyweights as the Faroe Islands and Northern Ireland. Its only serious competition was meant to be Serbia, but after the Serb supporters made such a ruckus in Genoa that the side had to forfeit, the group was Italy's for the taking. In the end, the azzurri claimed 26 points from a possible 30, its chance at perfection broken by draws with Serbia and (surprisingly), Northern Ireland.

So it was on to Poland and Ukraine, where Italy was grouped with Spain, Croatia and Republic of Ireland in Group B. The first challenge for the azzurri was those reigning reyes, the kings of Europe. To the surprise of many, Italy came away with a 1-1 draw against Spain, although Antonio Di Natale's goal was almost immediately neutralized by the equalizer from Cesc Fabregas.

Still, it was an unexpected point, and one that Italy needed, as Croatia turned out not to be the easy opponent they'd likely believed. Perhaps they hadn't watched Mario Mandžukić flatten Ireland? After Andrea Pirlo's stunning free kick sent the azzurri into the break with a 1-0 lead, they must've felt confident of all three points, as Croatia had barely a shot in the first 45. But a bit of tinkering at the half saw Luka Modrić suddenly burst to life, tormenting the Italians. The Croats chipped away at the Italian defense until Mandžukić sent Ivan Strinić's cross past Gianluigi Buffon for the 1-1 equalizer.

And then it was Ireland. Should've been simple stuff, really, but somehow Italy made a 2-0 win look difficult. Well, Mario Balotelli didn't, considering his superb goal in the 90th minute. But the match was not nearly as easy as it should have been -- no wonder fans of the country were worried as they went to face England in the quarterfinals.

But England, for some unfathomable reason, elected to sit back and play for penalties. Maybe it was the disappearance of Wayne Rooney's talent or their total fear of Pirlo that prompted them to believe that penalties were better than attacking in normal time, but whatever it was, the Three Lions gambled and lost. Balo's penalty was fierce, Pirlo's was a cheeky cucchiaio that will give Joe Hart nightmares for the rest of his life. Then Ashley Young missed and Grande Gigi saved Ashley Cole's shot, sending Italy through to the semifinals.

Where it met Germany -- the side that all those not betting on Spain chose to back. It was the Germans' year, we were all told, so what happened? Sloppy play at the back and a lack of willingness to change tactics on Germany's part. Unfortunately for the Germans, this was the match in which Balotelli decided to display his brilliance, opening the performance with a header and sealing the deal with a brilliant strike before the whistle blew for the half. Italy refused to hunker down and defend in the second, continuing to pour forth in search of goal. In the end, Germany pulled one back through a penalty converted by Mesut Özil, but, somewhat improbably, the azzurri were through to take on Spain.

And now for its biggest challenge -- showing the world that this wasn't all just a fluke. Or, even if it was, that the fluke can continue on through the final, and allow them to break down the side that has, thus far, proved to be unbreakable.

We'll have features, news updates and live coverage of the match in our Spain vs. Italy, Euro 2012 StoryStream. For more on Euro 2012 and the entire world of football, follow @SBNationSoccer on Twitter.

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