A date with destiny
The moment of truth has finally arrived. After three action-packed weeks in Austria and Switzerland, we are just hours away from the grand finale of UEFA EURO 2008, a championship memorable for its fine football, wonderful goals and high drama that ranks as one of the best in recent times.
Sunday's finalists Germany and Spain have never before contested the deciding game of a major tournament. For Joachim Low's side, the showdown will be their first appearance in a European final since they swept all before them at EURO 96 in England. And if team captain Michael Ballack -- doubtful with a calf injury -- can work his magic in midfield and get the best out of front men Lukas Podolski, Miroslav Klose and Bastian Schweinsteiger, as happened against Poland and Portugal, then the Mannschaft could well take top spot on the podium again.
Standing in their way, however, will be a fiercely determined Spain side. Luis Aragones' men have served up some of the most delectable football of the tournament and are unbeaten as they head into their third European Championship final 24 years after their last appearance. If La Selección are to take top honours though, they will have to do so without their injured striker David Villa, a key figure in their march to the final and the top-scorer at this championship.
That said, Spain have a replacement of the highest order in Cesc Fabregas. If the Arsenal man can forge an understanding with midfield orchestrators Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta, and Marcos Senna continues to perform adeptly in the holding role, then the resulting service to Fernando Torres, Daniel Guiza or David Silva up front could enable them to breach the defensive bulwark of Christoph Metzelder and Per Mertesacker.
A final to savour
Spain could be considered marginal favourites by virtue of their football at the tournament thus far. Not only did they win their three group games at the expense of Russia, Sweden and reigning champions Greece, they also laid to rest the ghosts of past failures by squeezing past world champions Italy in a dramatic quarter-final penalty shootout, before brushing aside Russia in their last-four tie.
Germany, by contrast, have been distinctly inconsistent in their march to the final in Vienna. In their group game against Poland and quarter-final against Portugal, the Mannschaft won deserved praise for the quality performances. However, against Austria and semi-final opponents Turkey, Germany suffered much more than had been expected, having earlier lost their second group game to Croatia.
That said, Joaquim Low's men clearly have what it takes to win Sunday's decider, as a cursory glance at their record in major tournaments confirms. Few sides are better equipped to handle the pressure of big occasions, or have more experience taking part in them either. Take their proud record at the FIFA World Cup™ for example. Germany have won three world titles, in 1954, 1974 and 1990, and finished second and third respectively at the last two editions, at Korea/Japan in 2002 and on home soil four years later.
Nor have they been any less adroit in accumulating European honours. Sunday's showpiece will be their sixth continental final, having gone all the way in 1972, 1980 and 1996. However, 12 years have passed since their last triumph - quite enough time for a country as accustomed to success as Germany.
Spain's list of honours is much more modest, which might explain why many members of La Roja feel they have a historical obligation not to let this one pass them by. Despite this being their third appearance in the continental decider, a record only bettered by Germany and Russia/USSR, Spanish fans have been waiting 24 years for another tilt at the title after losing in 1984 to a Michel Platini-inspired France. In fact to find Spain's only European success one must go back a further 20 years to the summer of 1964, when they won the second edition of the event as hosts.
In terms of their head-to-head record at the European Championships, honours are even with one win apiece. Spain edged out Germany with a late strike en-route to the final of France 1984, while their neighbours exacted revenge with a 2-0 win on home soil four years later. The last meeting between the pair, a 2003 friendly, ended in a 3-1 win for Spain, but overall Germany have the better record with eight wins to Spain's five, with another six games drawn.
Team spirit the order of the day
As for the final of EURO 2008, it is doubtful that one player will hold the key. Both coaches have fashioned collective groups from their respective squads, something very evident in their football. That said we can still look forward to some titanic duels at the Ernst-Happel stadium in Vienna.
Ballack, assuming he is fit, will pit his potency in the middle of the park against the vision and artistry of pass-masters Xavi and Iniesta. Furthermore, the loss to injury of David Villa could hand Cesc Fabregas a starting berth, enabling the Arsenal midfielder to renew his rivalry with Lukas Podolski four years after the pair battled it out for the Best Young Player award at the 2006 FIFA World Cup.
In addition there will be plenty of mini-battles fought in defence and attack. Germany's defensive pillars of Metzelder and Mertesacker can expect a busy night coping with the threat of El Nino Torres and the runs of David Silva, while Carles Puyol and Carlos Marchena will be no less preoccupied with the menace of Klose and Mario Gomez. Who knows, perhaps the key to victory might even lie in the last lines of defence, with Germany hoping the vast experience of Jens Lehman can match the youth and tenacity of Spanish captain Iker Casillas.
But as for who will be crowned kings of Europe... all will be revealed on Sunday.