By Alex Mott | Italy Expert
As two of the biggest footballing nations on the planet, tonight's encounter between Spain and Italy could be considered one of the most eagerly-anticipated contests of the European Championship. It should be a fascinating battle of tactics and personnel, and so, to run the rule over what to expect between La Roja and Azzurri on Sunday evening, Goal.com are on hand to assess the factors that could lead the European giants to victory.
|Jordi Alba v Christian Maggio|
It has become a truism in modern football that your full-backs are the most important players on the pitch. They create width, can start attacks, and can often stop them at their source. Spain then, perhaps have one of the most exciting in Europe: Jordi Alba. The 23-year-old was a revelation with Valencia last season, and will look to put the recently-maligned Christian Maggio under extreme pressure. The Napoli full-back was at fault for two of the goals as Russia beat the Azzurri 3-0 last Friday, and with Alba known for his tireless running and blistering pace, he could perhaps force another mistake out of the 30-year-old.
|Will Balotelli keep his head?
Part-genius, part-madman, who knows which version of Mario Balotelli will turn up in Gdansk on June 10? When he's on song, there are few better to watch in European football; unfortunately, those days seem to be fleeting at best. Coach Cesare Prandelli though, has said explicitly that Balotelli is assured of a starting berth, and that vote of confidence can only be good for the 21-year-old's confidence going into the opening game. His partnership with Antonio Cassano will be one of the main features of this Azzurri side, let's just hope it will prove to be for all the right reasons.
|Spain's striker conundrum
The injury to David Villa back in December was a sucker-punch not only to Barcelona, but to Spain as well. There are very few forwards in world football with the intelligence and movement to match that of the 30-year-old, and in that regard he is virtually irreplaceable. Vicente del Bosque then, has a huge conundrum when it comes to who to lead the line against Italy. Fernando Torres has endured a torrid season with Chelsea, scoring just seven goals in 46 games and has been dropped for la Roja's last two friendlies. Fernando Llorente, meanwhile, has been the catalyst for Athletic Bilbao's stunning campaign, scoring vital goals against Manchester United and Barcelona. He is, though, the complete antithesis to the sort of player Spain have produced in recent years, and that sort-sightedness could see him warming the bench.
|Italy's off-field problems
1982, the Totonero affair. 2006, Calciopoli. Both football scandals that rocked Italy, both years in which they won the World Cup. It seems that in a perverse sort of way, the Azzurri court controversy in order to win. And 2012 is no different. 'Scommessopoli' has seen full-back Domenico Criscito arrested in an early-morning raid, and Cesare Prandelli announce that he "wouldn't mind if Italy had to pull out of the tournament". This can either be a rallying point from which the team can unite, or a divisive rift from which the team fall apart. The Spanish game will go some way to answering that.
|The Azzurri's trequartista options
Prandelli's favoured 4-3-1-2 requires a traditional number 10; a player with an eye for a pass and a penchant for a goal. Against Spain though, that could be a luxury they can ill-afford. Riccardo Montolivo has flattered to deceive this season for Fiorentina, and was woeful in the friendly against Russia. Paris Saint-Germain's Thiago Motta is more of a defensive playmaker than a forward-thinking one. And, Alessandro Diamanti is wildly inexperienced at the top level. Facing the likes of Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta and Silva, could the midfield battle be over before it has even begun?