Italy-Spain Preview

By CHRIS ALTRUDA

STATS Editor

(AP) -- LONDON (SE) -- History beckons Spain with immortality as they are one victory away from an unprecedented third major consecutive title. Yet it also calls to Italy with an opportunity to add to their lore of resiliency Sunday night in Kiev, Ukraine, where the two sides will vie for the European Championship.

Only one squad - the 1976 West Germany team led by Franz Beckenbauer - ever had the chance to complete this majestic treble, but the 1972 Euro and 1974 World Cup champions lost on penalty kicks to Czechoslovakia as Antonin Panenka gained fame for his delicate yet cheeky chip that floated into the middle of the net with the tournament's final kick.

Now it is Spain - the 2008 Euro and 2010 World Cup winners as well as 1964 Euro champions - who stand on the precipice of greatness with their bid to successfully defend the Henri Delaunay Cup. The Roja started their nine-match run in knockout play by ousting Italy in penalty kicks in the 2008 Euro quarterfinals and have not conceded a goal during that staggering 900-minute stretch, advancing to the final by defeating Portugal on spot kicks Wednesday night after playing to a scoreless draw.

"Spain keeps making history, nobody has done what we have and now if we win Sunday's final we can add the exclamation point to this era," said defender Sergio Ramos, whose audacious soft chip in the penalty shootout helped put Spain in command. "I hope people appreciate how difficult it is to get to where we are. Spain won't always win every game but we hope that's not the case on Sunday."

Spain's possession-based offence of short, intricate passes - standout midfielders Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Xabi Alonso and Cesc Fabregas have combined to complete 1,262 of 1,330 passes in the five matches for a jaw-dropping 94.9 percent accuracy rate - designed to stretch defences has been equal parts hailed as revolutionary and decried as boring. Spain have utterly dominated long spells of matches yet only scored two goals in the run of play in their last 300 minutes in this tournament.

"There are two parts to football, the offensive and defensive aspects, and we're sharper on the defensive end," manager Vicente Del Bosque said.

Del Bosque has tried just about everything to find goals - opening without a true striker in Spain's 1-1 draw with Italy on June 10 and rotating his forwards seemingly at whim as Fernando Torres languished on the bench Wednesday night while Alvaro Negredo was a non-factor - but he also has made masterstrokes with his substitutions.

Jesus Navas and Pedro Rodriguez stretched Portugal to a near-breaking point throughout extra time before Fabregas calmly delivered the decisive spot kick, evoking memories of his 2008 effort that finished off Italy. However, Fabregas is acutely aware the Roja will need to score goals against a revamped Italy who have ditched their famed catenaccio under Cesare Prandelli in favour of an attacking squad paced by mercurial striker Mario Balotelli.

"He's a great player and he showed that again yesterday," said Fabregas, who also scored the match-tying goal versus Italy three weeks ago. "To score like that in the semifinal against Germany says it all. We have to try and throw him off his game because he is a player who can cause problems."

Heading into this tournament, problems regarding the Azzurri were those of their own doing. A match-fixing scandal - though not as large in scope as the ones that preceded Italy's World Cup titles in 1982 and 2006 - cost Domenico Criscito his spot in the squad and provided anxious moments for defender Leonardo Bonucci, while star goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon also faced scrutiny for large payments to a tobacco shop that is also a gambling parlour as the team struggled in the pre-tournament run-up.

Yet the unflappable Buffon and midfield maestro Andrea Pirlo - whose penalty in the shootout win over England recalled Panenka's daring effort and overall sublime play in completing 328 of 354 passes to serve as the engine of the Azzurri offensive renaissance - have been Prandelli's talismans, leading Italy from their shocking last-place group finish in South Africa two years ago and into the final in Kiev.

The 21-year-old Balotelli has followed their lead, finally showing the goal-scoring prowess - along with his trademark tempestuousness - on an international level similar to his club at Manchester City.

Balotelli's first-half brace powered Italy to a 2-1 victory over Germany in Thursday's other semifinal, the latter goal a crushing right-footed shot followed by his shirtless flexing pose that will be remembered as one of the goals of the tournament.

However, heading into this match, it is the goal by Antonio Di Natale - the one that staked Italy to a short-lived lead versus Spain in their group match - that has given the Azzurri confidence they can claim a second European title to go with their 1968 championship.

"We showed we're on Spain's level and that's where we started this run," Italy midfielder Claudio Marchisio said. "It's no longer a question of fear. Now we've got to pull out everything we still have inside ourselves."

Italy will have defender Christian Maggio available after he served a yellow-card suspension in Thursday's semifinal, though it is uncertain if Prandelli will opt for the 3-5-2 formation he used in the draw against Spain.

The teams have met 30 times overall, with Italy winning 10, Spain claiming eight and 12 finishing in draws. This is the fourth time there is a rematch in the final, with Greece beating Portugal twice en route to the 2004 title the most recent occasion.

Portugal's Pedro Proenca will officiate this match. He presided over the Champions League final between Chelsea and Bayern Munich and three matches in this tournament, most recently Italy's quarterfinal victory over England. Proenca also oversaw Spain's 4-0 win over Ireland on June 14.

Updated June 29, 2012

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