KIEV: Two weeks ago, long before either team had earned a spot in the final, Spain had a chance to eliminate Italy from the European Championship.
In the final round of group matches, Spain played Croatia knowing that a 2-2 draw would send both teams to the quarterfinals _ and send Italy home early for the third straight time at a major championship.
It didn't happen, and now it is Italy that will be trying to stop Spain from winning its third straight major championship on Sunday at Kiev's Olympic Stadium.
“We'll never regret not having drawn with Croatia to eliminate Italy,” Spain coach Vicente del Bosque said. “That wouldn't have been good for the sport.”
The Italians will head into Sunday's match as an unexpected finalist but looking very much like the kind of team that can finally knock Spain off its perch at the top of the football world.
In their opening Group C match, Italy held the defending champions to a 1-1 draw.
Antonio Di Natale scored first, but Cesc Fabregas equalized in a game in which the Azzurri looked more similar to Spain than to the stereotype of a defensive Italian team.
“Italy and ourselves have come through a similar route and now we have to reach the maximum level that a final will require,” Del Bosque said.
“In the group stage match, they were possibly better than us in the first half. They were the team that caused us the most problems.”
Even if the route was similar, Italy's path may have been more impressive.
They played needing a win against Ireland, at the same time that Spain turned in a 1-0 victory over the Croats on June 18, putting both through. The Italians then struggled to finish against England in the quarterfinals but still advanced by winning a penalty shootout after a 0-0 draw.
It wasn't until the semifinals against Germany that Italy really showed its strength, controlling play throughout the match and holding on to beat the three-time champions 2-1 with two goals from striker Mario Balotelli.
“I am convinced that a team needs to have a specific system and style of play. He was part of this strategy,” Italy coach Cesare Prandelli said of Balotelli.
“He made lots of forward runs, he was a target up front when we had to counterattack, and therefore he played a great match.”
The Spanish had less trouble against France in the quarterfinals, but their finishing then seemed to go fishing for the semifinal match against Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal. Spain needed penalties to get through that one.
“Sure, our attack may not have been as aesthetically pleasing to watch as we would have liked, but we were always in control of all of our matches,” Del Bosque said.
So heading into Sunday's match, it's the Italians who are scoring more goals, leaving the Spanish to worry about the back line when the superstar midfield loses the ball.
If the superstar midfield, which has been the key to Spain's titles at Euro 2008 and the 2010 World Cup, does lose the ball.
“(Our defensive) work has been fundamental to our game plan, especially in the last few games where our back line was always there when it needed to be,” Spain defender Sergio Ramos said.
“We're proud that our work is being valued and hopefully we don't concede a goal in the final because that would be the ultimate compliment to our work.”