- Holders Spain to meet Italy in Sunday's Euro 2012 final in Kiev
- Spain aiming to become first nation to win three successive major tournaments
- Italy looking for first Euros triumph since 1968, but won World Cup in 2006
- Spain's dominance and style has been labeled "boring" by some critics
And then there were two. Sunday's showpiece European Championship final in the Ukrainian capital Kiev pits holders Spain against Italy, between them the winners of the last two World Cups.
Spain are on the brink of creating soccer history; never before has a country won three major international football tournaments in a row and the Spanish, who won Euro 2008 and the 2010 World Cup, now have the chance to earn a place in the record books.
Before the Euros, former Barcelona and England striker Gary Lineker said "La Furia Roja" were just one trophy away from greatness.
"If they won three tournaments in a row, something no other team has done, you would have to put them up there among the all-time greatest teams," said Lineker, who helped England reach the World Cup semifinals in 1990.
Vicente del Bosque's side enjoyed huge good fortune in Wednesday's semifinal against Iberian neighbors Portugal, winning 4-2 in a penalty shootout after a 0-0 draw, with Cesc Fabregas scuffing the decisive spot-kick as it hit the inside of the post and rolled along the goalline before creeping into Rui Patricio's net.
Fabregas' penalty can perhaps be seen as a symbol of Spain's unconvincing performances at Euro 2012 so far, which have left a large proportion of the watching public unsatisfied as they struggled to break down packed opposition defenses.
The end of a love affair?
For all their possession (Spain have enjoyed around 67% of the ball in their five matches), there has been frustration that they have neither moved the ball around quickly enough nor created enough goalscoring chances, instead wearing the other team down by making their players chase shadows before waiting for a mistake.
Whisper it quietly, but some have even labeled Spain's previously much-feted tiki-taka style of play "boring" and claimed it is currently a more defensive tactic than offensive -- an argument perhaps backed up by the fact that Spain have now not conceded a knockout-stage goal in any tournament since the 2006 World Cup, a run of nine matches and a remarkable 900 minutes of action.
Against Italy in the group stage and France in the last eight, Del Bosque even picked a starting XI without a single striker -- a tactic designed to help Spain keep the ball better and lure the opposing defense out so they could get in behind. It hasn't worked flawlessly, but they have churned out results regardless.
Beautiful football might be what people demand, but results are what Del Bosque deals in first; since taking over from previous coach Luis Aragones following Euro 2008, the 61-year-old has led the national team to an incredible 50 wins from 59 matches.
Midfielder Andres Iniesta, who scored the winner in the 2010 World Cup final, says Spain aren't bothered by the "boring" tag. The 27-year-old instead focuses on the positives of their possession-based game.
"When a team wants to attack and comes up against an opponent that sits back and tries to close the space and not try to create its own chances, that's not always the football you want to watch," said Iniesta. "It's easy to forget that only a few years ago this style is what changed the story of Spain."
A change in mentality
It is a story that began at Euro 2008 -- and really, truly began with Spain's quarterfinal penalty shootout victory over Italy in Vienna, a match that defender Gerard Pique looks back on as the turning point.
"I think it changed the mentality of the national team," said the Barcelona star. "Before, Spain played to avoid losing -- but afterwards they played to win."
Italy were the World Cup champions at the time and favorites to go through, but it is perhaps not as well remembered that they were missing the suspended Andrea Pirlo, who has been in such glorious form at this tournament.