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The magnificent midfielder has been at the centre of Italy's charge to the Euro 2012 final, and a victory on Sunday would confirm him as a front-runner for the world player award

 Kris Voakes
 Euro 2012 correspondent
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'Stop Andrea Pirlo to stop Italy' has been the modus operandi of the Azzurri’s opponents at Euro 2012, and with good reason. But just as was the case for Juventus' Serie A rivals in 2011-12, it is proving much easier said than done. And with the four-time world champions standing just 90 minutes from a second taste of continental glory, the regista is making the greatest claim imaginable to be crowned the world’s best footballer.

In an age when the bickering between Messi-ites and Ronaldo-ites can sometimes reach a level of utter tedium, Pirlo has delivered some magnificent performances in crucial fixtures to carry both his club and country to important victories. Another mesmerising display against England on Sunday and a man of the match performance in Thursday’s semi-final win over Germany have further strengthened the former AC Milan man’s position as one of the modern game’s very best players.

PERFECT PIRLO

SPAIN - GROUP C
3.5 His delivery was uncharacteristically poor early on but he soon played a few exquisite passes. Was quiet for much of the rest of the game until he slid a beautiful pass to Di Natale who slotted in.
CROATIA - GROUP C
3.5 His all-round performance was of the highest class, with a series of fine corners and many great passes capped by a glorious free kick.
IRELAND - GROUP C
3.0 Had a really poor start but then rose to his usual role for Italy and again was at the centre of each of his team's attacks.
ENGLAND - QUARTER-FINAL
3.5 Played a few good passes as he was afforded too much space on the ball, creating a good opportunity with an exquisite pass before the break. He continued to dictate the game in the second half and pulled all the strings. Put his penalty down the middle with a classy Panenka.
GERMANY - SEMI-FINAL
4.0 Italy's midfield architect, he oozed class once again. Never panicked on the ball and picked his passes at will as Italy were able to retain possession.

On the face of it, it wasn’t necessarily a vintage Pirlo effort which helped Italy through to the final as they beat Joachim Low’s side 2-1, but he played no small part in their triumph. On an uneven surface, Pirlo was able to master the conditions perfectly as he turned in another metronomic display in the centre of the park. Germany struggled to maintain position, but Pirlo didn’t.

Again, he laid the platform for the Azzurri on the ball, guiding them around the park from his position at the axis, dictating operations in the unflustered manner to which we have all become so accustomed over the years.

But there has been something more about him in the past 12 months. Back to full fitness after a long lay-off in 2010-11, the midfielder has also been able to show a burning desire, the like of which was arguably missing for a couple of years at the end of his Milan career. He has a real thirst to be the catalyst for everything that is good about Juventus and that has extended into his displays for the national team, too.

At a time when Italian football is castigated at the drop of a hat, admiration of Pirlo is only increasing, and with good reason. But perhaps last night was the greatest proof yet that he is in the running to gatecrash the duopoly of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo in the Ballon d’Or race. In a game where massive contributions by Daniele De Rossi, Mario Balotelli and Andrea Barzagli were arguably more worthy of the official man of the match award, it was Pirlo who was deigned the game’s stand-out by the sponsors, proving that he is a man currying favour at the right time.

While league displays are all well and good, it is common practice for the big awards to be reflective of contributions at major international tournaments. Ronaldo (of Brazil) won the Ballon d’Or a decade ago on the strength of his magnificent performances at the World Cup in Japan and South Korea, while Fabio Cannavaro’s story was much the same four years later. Pirlo is now in a great position to follow them, and victory for Italy over Spain on Sunday can surely only strengthen his case.

In the Twitter age in which we now live, it is also notable, studying many a timeline, that Pirlo is receiving increasing praise from the world’s media on a daily basis, and as they hold voting rights in the awarding of the honour, that can only help the midfielder’s case.

The one drawback in his bid to win the Ballon d’Or at the moment is his lack of games at Champions League level, with Juve having missed out on any European involvement last time out. However, by the time the votes are tallied at the end of the year, the Bianconeri will have played in the 2012-13 group stages, meaning a couple more man of the match performances on the continental stage remain a possibility before the year is out.

And if, by then, he is a European champion at national level and a key man in a successful Juventus side making strides in the Champions League, few will even remember that he wasn’t involved in the competition last season. Being the best player in Serie A and the player of the tournament at the Euros in the first half of the year will surely be more than enough to satisfy the doubters as long as next season starts well.

THE MAIN MAN?
3/1 Andrea Pirlo is 3/1 to win the 2012 Ballon d'Or with Paddy Power

What must also be reiterated is that his contribution for Juve could not have been more crucial. A minnow in the world game they may not be, but they were not on the firm foundations of a Barcelona or Real Madrid when their assault on the Scudetto began. Far from it. Yet Pirlo steered them towards the prize almost single-handedly at times, and with his performances in the national colours matching those at club level, hatfuls of goals against the Granadas and Zaragozas of the world just don’t compare.

So if Italy do topple Spain from their perch as Europe’s best on Sunday, expect their No.21 to follow with a huge prize of his own. In a modern game full of hyperbole, it is delivering on the big stage that really counts, and nobody has done that better than the unstoppable Pirlo so far in 2012.

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