As we regard the Euro 2012 final, it's apparent that we will watch the tournament's two most irresistible sides. Spain have for four years been the international game's standard, a gestalt of tiki-taka, creation and industry. Italy, too, have been utterly compelling; where Spain have over a dozen world-class talents to call upon, arguably the Azzurri boast only a handful – their achievement has come primarily through unity, adaptability and system.
To some observers, their group clash was the best match of the tournament. Since then, the Italians have moved from unknown quantity to having a real puncher's chance at taking the Championship.
Italy manager Cesare Prandelli went into the tournament expecting to play a 4-4-2 with players rotating through a midfield diamond but opted for an unfamiliar 3-5-2 in Italy's opening matches against Spain and Croatia. When this proved only functional versus the Croats, Prandelli went back to his favoured formation which consequently produced sterling results against England and Germany. How they'll line up on Sunday is still unknown, neither formation would surprise.
Tactically, Italy are likely to attempt to free their key midfielders Andrea Pirlo and Daniele De Rossi. De Rossi plays deeper and has struggled to play the full ninety minutes on occasion; Pirlo, the team's creative hub, has been the tournament's best – if not necessarily it's most important – player. The only suggestion Italy may opt for the 3-5-2 again is to offer this duo more protection from a Spanish philosophy based almost entirely upon retrieving possession as soon as it is lost.
Almost to a man, Spain are circuitous, dutiful pests. They discombobulate opponents with tricksy approach patterns amid waves of possession seemingly engineered by Phil Spector. Possession is both weapon and targe; a plastic object moulded and shaped into beautiful creation.
Spain are likely to stick to their favoured 4-3-2-1. Their only question is whether to opt for a true centre-forward or keep Cesc Fabregas out of position as a False 9. With his choices in the semi-final – Alvaro Negredo, who was only mediocre before being subbed early for Fabregas – del Bosque appears to have made his decision. The presence of Fabregas could be crucial in pressuring Pirlo and De Rossi, while also allowing Andrés Iniesta to advance forward and create.
It's worth noting however that Spain have often looked best after withdrawing one of Iniesta, Fabregas or Silva and employing either Barcelona's Pedro or Sevilla's Jesús Navas as out-and-out wide players. This is probably because each triumvir prefers to operate in the centre of the park, while Pedro and Navas earn their coin down the flanks. It isn't that Iniesta or Fabregas can't do so – but that they prefer the field's centre.
Both teams have developed their own effective methods of pacifying their opposition; the most important factor in producing a win from that power-position is the generation of goals. Perhaps the greatest fundamental difference between the two finalists is in each team's ability to draw a goal from the ether: in Antonio Cassano and Mario Balotelli. Prandelli's two forwards have probably been two of the tournament's best and their mere presence – backed by impressive spells by Alessandro Diamanti and Riccardo Montolivo – mean the Italians can feel confident of scoring.
More than perhaps any other team, this Spain team lend themselves to analogy, simile and cliché. Pass and move. Death by a thousand cuts. They pass you to death. Metronomes. Boa Constrictors. They use Alan Rickman's spoon. They possess column inches and bandwidth like they do the football. A win would place them firmly among the best sides of all time, yet they've never had an iconic opponent or truly “all-time” match.
Sunday promises to be that mountaintop.