Euro 2012 reaches its climax in Sunday's final in Kiev, when defending champions Spain will bid to hold off an Italy side who have steadily eased into form in trademark fashion.
Having beaten strongly fancied Germany 2-1 in Thursday's second semi-final in Warsaw, 1968 title-winners Italy will contest a Euro final for the first time since their extra-time loss to France in 2000.
Reigning world and European champions Spain are seeking to become the first team in history to win three consecutive major titles, but they required a penalty shoot-out to edge Portugal in the last four in Donetsk.
Despite dominating possession, as they did in the 2-0 quarter-final success over France, Spain laboured in attack against the Portuguese and have started to face accusations that their 'tika-taka' style has become sterile.
Italy, in contrast, have confounded low pre-tournament expectations to eliminate first England and then Germany, and they have not been beaten by Spain over 90 minutes in a competitive match since the 1920 Olympics.
Italy's preparations for the tournament having been clouded by the Calcioscommesse match-fixing affair, the Azzurri could be poised to triumph in the face of adversity once again.
Their World Cup successes in both 1982 and 2006 were prefaced by match-fixing scandals, but coach Cesare Prandelli has cooled talk of omens by insisting that his side will be the underdogs at Kiev's Olympic Stadium.
"We are looking for Spain's weak points and we'll be working on that, but it won't be easy. "
- Italy coach Cesare Prandelli
"We are looking for Spain's weak points and we'll be working on that, but it won't be easy," said Prandelli, whose side beat Spain 2-1 in a friendly in August last year.
"They are world and European champions."
Spain and Italy drew 1-1 in their opening Group C game - Cesc Fabregas cancelling out Antonio di Natale's opener - and it will be the fourth time that two teams who have met in their first game resume hostilities in the final.
The last occasion was at Euro 2004, when Greece twice upset hosts Portugal.
Italy successfully stifled Spain three weeks ago in Gdansk, as Prandelli opted for a 3-5-2 formation that afforded his defenders extra room to manoeuvre against Spain's fluid front three.
Fabregas was used as a 'false nine' in that game, but Spain coach Vicente del Bosque appears to have doubts over who is the best player to spearhead his attack. Fernando Torres played up front in the 4-0 win over Ireland and the 1-0 defeat of Croatia, while Alvaro Negredo started in the 0-0 draw with Portugal but was replaced by Fabregas early in the second half.
One striker brimming with confidence is Italy's Mario Balotelli, who came of age in the semi-final against Germany with a confidently taken first-half brace.
The controversy-prone 21-year-old provided one of the images of the tournament by embracing his adoptive mother in the crowd after the final whistle, and he will enter Sunday's game as the tournament's joint-top scorer with three goals.
"Balotelli is a great player," said Fabregas.
"He showed that (on Thursday) by scoring two superb goals in a semi-final against a very strong team like Germany."
An engaging tournament requires only a memorable final to confirm its status as a modern classic, but Spain will need to awake from their slumber if they are to overcome a disciplined and committed Italy side. The champions must also shake the weariness from their legs after 120 minutes of graft against Portugal, although they will benefit from an extra day's rest.
"We're very motivated by the possibility of setting a new record by winning the trophy," said centre-back Sergio Ramos on Friday.
"But we also want to enjoy the moment. Even if we lose, we've already made history just by reaching the final. Winning would be the cherry on the cake.
"Spain as a country can be very proud, whatever happens on Sunday, but the goal is obviously to win and return to Spain with our heads held high."
Both teams are expected to be at full-strength, with Italy right-back Ignazio Abate having shrugged off a muscle problem that kept him out of the semi-final.
As well as pitting together two of the tournament's outstanding midfielders in Spain's Andres Iniesta and Italy's Andrea Pirlo, the game will also see Spain attempt to become the first country to successfully defend the European title.
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|Timothy V. Gatto|