With the 2016 European Championships looming just a few short months away, it's crunch time for the teams preparing to try to win it. It feels appropriate, then, that the two sides who battled tooth and nail in the Euro 2012 final should go head-to-head as they make their final test runs before this year's competition. Spain won that day in a dramatic and tense match, but Italy feel that they're a better side now than they were four years ago.
This time the match is on Italian soil, and Antonio Conte and company will be hoping that the Stadio Friuli proves to be a decisive advantage. They'll be hoping, though, that the recent news that Conte will be leaving the Italy side after Euro 2016 won't prove to be a distraction for his team, because they're already playing at less than full strength thanks to injuries. If Italy can't focus on the task at hand, it's going to be very, very difficult to beat a Spain side that's been improving rapidly over the last year after overcoming an 18-month slump in form.
Key Italy player -- Stephan El Shaarawy
After years of struggling with injuries and poor form, El Shaarawy has finally found excellent form once more after joining Roma in January, and that earned him a ticket back into the national team. Despite being just 23 and dealing with those long-term struggles, El Shaarawy is actually the most experienced forward in the current national squad thanks to his 17 caps -- the next two most-capped forwards, Graziano Pelle and Eder, only combine for 18 total caps. No matter what role he plays in this game, El Shaarawy needs to make sure that the faith Conte has shown him was worthwhile, and make as big of an impact as possible.
Key Spain player -- Juan Mata
While Mata played a big role in Spain's win over Italy four years ago, his role in the Roja side hasn't always been as consistent as he'd like since then. He should get his chance to shine in this match, though, with a few regulars for Spain's attack not in the squad right now. If he can take over this game, it could open up the way for him to play a much, much bigger role come Euro 2016 in the summer.
Match Date/Time: Thursday, 3:45 p.m. ET, 8:45 p.m. local
Venue: Stadio Friuli, Udine, Italy
TV: ESPN2 (U.S. - English), ESPN Deportes (U.S. - Spanish), RAI Uno (Italy), TeleCinco Espana (Spain)
Online: WatchESPN, Sling (U.S.)