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Euro 2012 final: Spain vs Italy -- the key battles

Italy will look to depose Spain as European kings when the two teams meet in the Euro 2012 final after having won their respective semi-finals against Germany and Portugal respectively.

The individual battles that will help determine the outcome of Sunday's Euro 2012 final between Italy and defending champions Spain at the Olympic Stadium in Kiev:

Christian Maggio, Andres Iniesta
Italy's defender Cristian Maggio (L) and Spanish midfielder Andres Iniesta. Pic/AFP

Suspended for the semi-final victory over Germany, Italy right-back Maggio will compete with Ignazio Abate for the right to start in Sunday's final, when he is likely to come up against the in-form Iniesta.

Whether deployed as a wing-back in a 3-5-2 system or as a more conventional right-back in a back four, Maggio's chief defensive responsibility will be to keep tabs on the roaming Barcelona midfielder.

Iniesta's tendency to drift infield will force Maggio onto his weaker left foot, and the Napoli man is likely to require support from his colleagues in central midfield.

Maggio likes to attack but he will also need to be aware of the over-lapping runs of Spanish left-back Jordi Alba, who stormed forwards to set up Xabi Alonso's opening goal in the 2-0 quarter-final victory over France.

Pirlo, Xavi
Italian midfielder Andrea Pirlo (L) and Spanish midfielder Xavi. Pic.AFP

It is rare for playmakers to find themselves in direct opposition to each other, but Pirlo's habitual positioning in front of the Italian defence means he will be operating in the same territory as Spain's chief schemer, Xavi.

Pirlo has been one of the stars of the tournament and received the man-of-the-match award after both Italy's penalty shoot-out win over England in the quarter-finals and the last-four success against Germany.

"He is indispensable -- the avenue down which all moves go in whichever team he is in," says former Italy coach Giovanni Trapattoni.

The 33-year-old Pirlo configures his side's attacks with strafing passes from deep positions and Xavi, perhaps in tandem with Spain's starting striker, will need to cut out those passes before they are launched.

Xavi's failure to impose himself at the tournament has been symptomatic of Spain's toils in attack, but he will only need an inch of room to punish Italy and remind the world of his quality.

Xabi, de Rossi
Spanish mid-fielder Xabi Alonso (L) and Italian midfielder Daniele De Rossi. Pic/AFP

Having been deployed at the heart of a three-man defence in Italy's first two games, De Rossi has since returned to his preferred role in central midfield.

Although he has played in defence on occasion for club side Roma, the 28-year-old is more accomplished in the middle of the pitch and his aggressive tackling helped set the tone for the 2-1 victory over Germany in Warsaw.

With Xavi short of form, Xabi Alonso has emerged as the key creative force in the reigning champions' midfield.

Italy coach Cesare Prandelli will not want the gifted Real Madrid organiser to be given too much time on the ball and one of De Rossi's chief responsibilities will be to deny Alonso space.

Balotelli, ramos
Italian forward Mario Balotelli (L) and Spanish defender Sergio Ramos. Pic/AFP

The enfant terrible of Italian football, Balotelli stamped his mark on the competition with a fine brace against Germany -- a powerful header followed by an emphatic finish that left goalkeeper Manuel Neuer rooted to the spot.

Long maligned for his indiscipline, the Manchester City striker earned praise from Prandelli for his selfless work at the tip of the Italian attack.

"I really believe that a team need to have an idea about the way they play and he really subscribes to this playing style," said Prandelli after the Germany game.

"He played high up the pitch and made himself available, and I think he put in a very good performance."

The partnership between Balotelli and Antonio Cassano is liable to give Spain's defenders headaches, with both men prone to drift wide, obliging their markers to move out of position.

Ramos and fellow centre-back Gerard Pique must also be alert to high balls over the top of the Spanish defence, as Italy possess pinpoint passers in the shape of Pirlo and Riccardo Montolivo.

Fabregas, Cassano
Spanish midfielder Cesc Fabregas (L) and Italian forward Antonio Cassano. Pic/AFP

These two individuals may be on extreme ends of the the pitch, but how they perform on the night could be the key to their team's success. While Spain's Cesc Fabregas is a midfielder who's been thrust into the forward's role, Antonio Cassano is an attacking striker.

Interestingly, Fabregas has been on target twice compared to Cassano's one. The Italian would be looking to improve his statistics. Fabregas, on the other hand, while being the most succesful 'striker' in the Spanish squad may find himself starting the game on the bench. But he can be lethal even if he joins the action in the second half as a substitute.  

Casillas, Buffon
Spanish goalkeeper Iker Casillas (L) and Italian goalie Gianluigi Buffon. Pic/AFP

Iker Casillas is technically sound and has been having a great Euro 2012. His key saves is one of the biggest reasons for Spain's progress to the final.

And while his team's game of keeping possession of the ball may mean Casillas does not see much action. But his concentration never wanes. His saves against Croatia and again in the semi-finals his save in the penalty shoot-out against Portugal show that Italy will have to work very hard to get past Casillas.

While Gianluigi Buffon may have allowed more goals against than Casillas (three to St Iker's one), but the Italian has also had an exemplary tournament. He made a brilliant made save in the penalty shootout against England.  

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