Sunday's European Championship final between defending champion Spain and Italy features two teams who have dominated possession through slick passing and disciplined defending at the tournament. Here's a quick look at the most intriguing matchups that could decide who emerges victorious at the Olympic Stadium:
Xavi and Pirlo have played key roles in their respective teams' progress to the final. Everything comes off the boot of these visionary playmakers, with Pirlo having so far exceeded Xavi's influence on the defending champions at Euro 2012. Pirlo, 33, continues a resurgence that started with his move to Serie A champions Juventus, and he has been the catalyst for Italy's surprising attack-friendly style that beat Germany in the semifinals. A long and grueling club season seems to have taken its toll on Xavi, but the influence of the 32-year-old Barcelona midfielder is undeniable. And he still managed to set a European Championship passing record in the group stages. At their finest, they give their teams a clear advantage.
Andres Iniesta, 28, is no stranger to heroics. The diminutive Barcelona midfielder scored the World Cup-winning goal in South Africa two years ago, yet is still emerging from the shadows of Xavi to star for his country in Poland and Ukraine. One of the tournament's standout players, Iniesta has helped make up for the absence of all-time leading scorer David Villa by creating much of Spain's attack. Daniele De Rossi has been one of Italy's top performers and will be called on to keep an eye on Iniesta. De Rossi, 28, has been coach Cesare Prandelli's utility player, moving the usual midfielder into defense against Spain. He is expected to play in his traditional midfield position this time around.
As the captains of Spain and Italy, no two players embody their teams' success better than their veteran goalkeepers. Iker Casillas, who hasn't conceded a goal in a tournament knockout stage since the 2006 World Cup, can become the first player to record 100 victories after making vital saves against Croatia in the group stage and a penalty stop in the semifinal shootout win over Portugal. Casillas, 31, edged Buffon in a Euro 2008 quarterfinal penalty shootout win but the Italy 'keeper saved Ashley Cole's penalty as his team beat England in the quarterfinal shootout. Buffon â€” who has been an Italy regular for nearly 15 years â€” has been at his stellar best at Euro 2012. Buffon will pick up his 120th cap in the final, moving to within 16 appearances of Fabio Cannavaro's Italy record, while Casillas extends his Spain record to 136 appearances.
With Carles Puyol missing the tournament due to injury, Sergio Ramos, 26, has become moved over to a center back role. Ramos, a regular for the fourth straight tournament, showed his confidence by replicating Andrea Pirlo's chipped 'Panenka' penalty in the shootout win over Portugal, but he'll face a challenge to contain the blossoming Mario Balotelli. When they met in the Group C opener, Balotelli, 21, wasted a golden opportunity by inexplicably slowing down to let Ramos catch up and rob him of the ball. But over the past three matches, Balotelli has scored with a spectacular bicycle kick against Ireland, opened the shootout against England with a perfectly executed spot kick, then added two more superb goals against Germany in the semifinals. Balotelli says he's aiming for four goals in the final, two for his mother and two for his father.
Strong in the air and hard to the tackle, the 25-year-old Gerard Pique will have his hands full containing the creative Antonio Cassano at least for an hour. Having returned in April after five months out following minor heart surgery, Cassano still hasn't regained full fitness and has been substituted near the hour mark in each of Italy's first five matches. But as Italy coach Cesare Prandelli says, he wouldn't trade Cassano's 60 minutes for anyone else's "because they are pure fantasy." And that was even before Cassano, 29, threaded his way between two German defenders to place a perfect cross to Balotelli for Italy's opening goal in the semifinals. While standing just 1.75 meters (5-foot-9) Cassano also shows impeccable timing in the air and will keep Pique on his toes, even though the Barcelona defender has gelled better with Ramos with every game.