KIEV, Ukraine — And so they meet again at Euro 2012.
This time, however, Spain and Italy are playing for the European Championship and a place in the history books.
The Mediterranean rivals meet Sunday in Kiev’s Olympic Stadium, three weeks after they drew, 1-1, in their opening match of the tournament’s group stage.
As the defending champion and World Cup holder, Spain is bidding to win a third straight major title. A win would cement its place as one of the greatest national teams.
It also would match Germany’s record of three European Championship titles. (Spain first won the title in 1964.)
Only the unpredictable Mario Balotelli and a surprising Italy team — orchestrated by midfielder Andrea Pirlo — stand between Spain and what many see as its destiny.
Even Italy Coach Cesare Prandelli reckons that Spain is the best bet to lift the trophy.
“Spain remain favorites because of the years of hard work that they have put in,” Prandelli said. “They have been dominant in every game they’ve played so far.”
Spain hasn’t lost in a European Championship since 2004 and has already matched West Germany as the only defending champion to return to the final after winning the World Cup. The West Germans managed it in 1976, but subsequently lost to Czechoslovakia following Antonin Panenka’s famous chip shot in a penalty shootout.
This final brings together teams with players brazen enough to have successfully copied Panenka’s audacious spot kick during their penalty shootouts in the knockout rounds. Spain defender Sergio Ramos used it in the semifinal win over Portugal, after Pirlo employed it against England in the quarterfinals.
It also features the tournament’s best defensive team against one of its most exciting attacking squads.
Spain has not conceded a goal since that opening draw with Italy and hasn’t been scored upon in nine elimination games at major tournaments.
Balotelli, Antonio Cassano and Pirlo are leading one of Italy’s top attacking teams in recent history.
Though Balotelli’s selection had been in doubt due to troubles on and off the pitch at Manchester City, the 21-year-old of Ghanaian descent has scored three times at Euro 2012.
Along with their players, the Azzurri also have an encouraging statistic on their side: Spain hasn’t beaten Italy in a competitive match that didn’t end in penalties since 1920.
Spain’s attack has featured a rotating cast of forwards. Usually, attacking midfielder Cesc Fabregas has been preferred to striker Fernando Torres. On Sunday, Coach Vicente del Bosque is likely to repeat the 4-6 formation he first deployed against Italy on June 10.
Substitutes Pedro Rodriguez and Jesus Navas have had impressive tournaments and Del Bosque certainly values the contribution of players who don’t feel slighted by being on the bench.
“When you send out a substitute who is upset it always makes things more difficult. When you send out a player who is happy and ready to play one minute if that’s what’s needed, that is very important,” Del Bosque said.
Del Bosque admitted that Portugal not only made Spain look sloppy for over an hour, but had taken his players “to the limit.”
However, his team’s extra day of rest compared to the Azzurri will help with preparations, while Italy is keeping an eye on any injury problems after Balotelli came off in the second half against Germany due to cramps.
“We’re proud of what we are doing and, of course, we hope to achieve what no one else has done before,” Del Bosque said, before touching on what victory would mean with an economic crisis back home.
“It would be good for everyone, for Spanish football and for our country.”
Amy Rodriguez scored the winning goal in the 85th minute to lift the United States women’s team past Canada, 2-1, in Sandy, Utah, in its final tuneup before the London Olympics.
Rodriguez tapped Megan Rapinoe’s cross to Abby Wambach, who overran it just outside the 6-yard box. Wambach turned away from the net, recovered and then back-heeled the ball toward the goal where it deflected off diving Canadian goalie Erin McLeod.
The rebound popped to Rodriguez just a few feet in front of an empty net.