UEFA EURO 2012 FINAL: ITALY v SPAIN
Olympic Stadium Kiev, 19:45 BST
Stopping Pirlo the great dictator must be at the back of Spanish minds on the eve of the Euro 2012 final.
While the world champions appear to follow the Brian Clough maxim 'let them worry about us', their sub-par first half against Portugal when their Iberian neighbours upset their rhythm must have given them pause for thought.
And Vicente Del Bosque cannot have failed to notice how the Juventus playmaker dismantled England and Germany from deep, playing telling through-balls and releasing Italy's two trigger-happy strikers Mario Balotelli and Antonio Cassano to shoot on sight.
Cesc Fabregas admitted as much.
"Our mission has to be to deactivate the two forwards and Pirlo," he said. "If we manage to resolve those problems we will have possibilities to win the final."
Spain playing to spoil first and win later - who would have thought it? While Jurgen Klinsmann raged at the German midfield's failure to shut down Italy's creative force, Gianluca Vialli reassured him that teams have been trying but failing to silence Pirlo for years.
There is no magic formula. Just look how elegantly Pirlo strokes the ball around, so assured and calm under pressure. That is no accident. He has been around at the highest level too long to be taken out of the game easily.
It is hard to think Spain will want to remove a man from their own system to glue himself to Pirlo, but equally Xabi Alonso, Sergio Busquets and Xavi will be tearing the ground to close the Italian 'regista' down.
Sergio Ramos added, "His game is similar to Xavi's. They are two really great players but we must not centre in only on him because Italy has more danger with its two strikers or coming in from the wings. We have to weigh up their game as a whole."
Stick to Pirlo and Daniele De Rossi, Claudio Marchisio or Riccardo Montolivo will pull the strings instead. Better to keep tabs on them all.
The meeting of the sides in the group stage was an engrossing clash of styles which bodes well for the rematch in Kiev. In the final we do not expect Italy to play so defensively as they did in their first game, when avoiding defeat against the holders was deemed an achievement. Nevertheless, the Italian breakaway goal hinted of the hidden potential that came to the fore in the semi-final against Germany. Espana beware.
Spain have never resolved their striking dilemma - play a Fernando Torres dragging markers with his runs but still not firing on all cylinders and missing chances , Fabregas as a 'false No.9' loitering in the hole and rushing in as the tiki-taka wave breaks, or (less likely) throw in a big man in Fernando Llorente or Alvaro Negredo, who failed to impress when handed his chance against Portugal.
Scrapping for space in the middle is where the game will swing one way or the other. Italy played Spain in Gdansnk with a cautious 3-5-2 formation, but point gained, switched into 4-1-3-2 from then on with Pirlo anchoring a midfield diamond.
Alonso and his distribution is as close as Spain gets to a Pirlo, while Barcelona boys Andres Iniesta and Xavi will do the lion's share of the tiki-taka. Fabregas and David Silva up front present real danger to the Azzurri and combined to deadly effect against them already in Gdansk.
One advantage Italy seems to have is in fitness. Prior to entering Euro 2012, Italy's squad had played an average of eight games less than Spain's and Cesare Prandelli's men have looked fresher than all their opponents in Euro 2012. Spain have seemed lethargic at times but will be encouraged by the second wind they found in extra-time against Portugal.
If they can make their tiki-taka work and keep the ball, Italy will be chasing the game for long spells and any difference in the tanks will soon be equalised. Spain are more predictable than Italy: They will pass short through the middle and creep up in numbers before releasing the killer shot. They have no Plan B beyond throwing on wide man Jesus Navas, but Plan A works fine enough.
The Italians will be studying the teams who have put La Roja under pressure in the tournament already, mulling over whether to play a waiting game as Croatia and the Azzurri themselves did, or press high up the pitch from the off and put them on the back foot like Portugal. They know Croatia, France, Ireland and Portugal all failed to score against Spain, while Antonio Di Natale beat Iker Casillas in Gdansk.
Spain only drew but out-passed Italy 780 to 426 in that game and won 65% of possession, a familiar story.
Too much caution like the French showed will not work, but that particular team was also consumed by in-fighting before it took the field. The Azzurri enter the final buoyed by their dismissal of the much-fancied Germans.
These two nations are both Latin in origin, have similar climates, location and languages but very different football traditions. The Euro 2008 quarter-final between the two saw Spain's passing paradise overcome the native defensiveness of the land of catenaccio.
Since then, Italy have opened up in style while Spain have persisted with tiki-taka and added the world crown. 'La Roja' are less flamboyant and at times a little more sluggish than four years ago, so many watchers are waiting for their hegemony to crack. At Euro 2012 they have averaged 58 passes per shot compared to 33 four years ago. But while the pocket dynamoes Iniesta and Xavi cannot run forever, reports of the current crop's demise have been greatly exaggerated.
A win for Spain will etch their name in the pantheon of super sides. No nation has retained the European Championship or won three consecutive major tournaments before. Already historic for a double trophy capture and creating one of football's greatest playing styles, the Spaniards are one game from undoubted immortality.
Watching the Euros in Spain has been exciting and a blessed relief from the wall-to-wall coverage of 'la crisis'. With state borrowing crippling the economy, property values have halved, a quarter of the workforce is unemployed and many are thinking of emigrating as the government pleads for bailout cash from the European Union.
Walk around any Spanish town however and La Roja is everywhere on billboards and in-store promotions. Bread and circuses it may be, but the people need a break from the harsh reality. Once the games have finished, they switch channels and it's bad news 24/7 once more.
Even if La Seleccion win Euro 2012, tomorrow the real Spanish struggle resumes. The people are well aware of this and are enjoying the escapism while they can, donning red and yellow in the hope of one last football fiesta.
SPAIN: 4-2-1-3 - Casillas, Arbeloa, Alba, Pique, Ramos, Busquets, Alonso, Xavi, Iniesta, Fabregas, Silva.
ITALY: 4-1-3-2: Buffon, Abate, Barzagli, Bonucci, Chiellini, Marchisio, Pirlo, De Rossi, Montolivo, Balotelli, Cassano.
(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile