KIEV, June 30 (Reuters) - Spain have not got to three successive major finals by worrying too much about their opponents but Sunday’s Euro 2012 decider with Italy might give coach Vicente Del Bosque a few moustache-stroking moments.
The all-pervasive influence of Andrea Pirlo on Italy’s run to the final means Spain know they have to restrict his time on the ball - and ensure they mark the Italian front runners more tightly than many other sides have during the tournament.
The only goal Spain have conceded came when Pirlo briefly escaped the attentions of his buzzing midfield opponents to set up Antonio Di Natale and he has been at the heart of most of Italy’s attacks all the way through.
Del Bosque started without a recognised striker when the teams met in the group stage while Italy flooded the midfield from the other direction by playing three at the back.
Cesare Prandelli has moved away from that formation subsequently and been rewarded with a defensive solidity that has given Pirlo and others time and space to operate.
Spain made little headway with attacking midfielder Cesc Fabregas as their cutting edge and after they brightened up with the introduction of striker Fernando Torres, Del Bosque has flitted between the two systems throughout the tournament.
He can afford to tweak his attacking tactics as his defence is so reliable. They have not conceded a goal in their nine tournament knockout games since a 3-1 defeat by France in the last 16 of the 2006 World Cup.
Italy’s goal apart, Spain’s defence has not been pierced in this tournament and Iker Casillas has barely been tested.
That solid foundation gives Xavi, Xabi Alonso, Sergio Busquets and the remarkable Andres Iniesta the confidence to play the relentless possession football that has served them so well over the last four years.
At times in this tournament, however, Spain have been on the road to nowhere and without an attacking outlet or anyone running beyond the ball have never looked like killing sides off.
Del Bosque sprung a surprise by starting with Alvaro Negredo in the semi-final against Portugal but the unheralded striker made little impact and a repeat is not on the cards.
With Torres still only showing flashes of his former sharpness Del Bosque might revert to the Fabregas formation, perhaps encouraging the midfielder to operate more ambitiously than in the group game but trusting in his proven big-match temperament.
That also gives the wily Spanish coach lots of options from the bench, with Jesus Navas and the effervescent Pedro able to add pace and directness alongside a choice of chomping-at-the-bit strikers.
Prandelli seems to have the easier selection task after dismissing questions about a return to three at the back.
“Quite frankly, no,” he said on Saturday. “Because over the last few games we have had a lot of balance in the side, but we have learnt that over the course of a game we could switch to that.”
Italy’s system is relatively straightforward with strikers Antonio Cassano and Mario Balotelli as willing runners for Pirlo, Daniele De Rossi, Claudio Marchisio and Riccardo Montolivo to pick out.
The risk comes when one or more of those midfielders gets forward in support, leaving midfield holes that Spain can exploit.
Balotelli, joint tournament top-scorer with three goals, could make himself an unlikely hero of Italian soccer if he nabs a fourth and the way Italy have played en route to the final there is a fair chance he will get at least one decent opportunity.
With the last four finals being settled by a one goal margin, the last two being 1-0, and with two great defences and goalkeepers in action on Sunday, that one opportunity might be enough. (Editing by Ken Ferris)