WEST BROMWICH, England (AP) – Ten reasons to root for this Italy team:
1 - Andrea Pirlo is the player of the tournament
And if he isn't, somebody had better do something out of this world in the final. Italy's conductor has been in masterful form during Euro 2012. He manages to combine being wonderful to watch with stunning efficiency. His poise and passing make the team tick and elevate the performance of all his teammates. Half the time he looks like he is so in control you wonder if he could even play blindfolded. Pirlo has said he doesn't think he will still be part of the Italy scene by the next World Cup, but it's hard to imagine the Azzurri without him.
2 - Gigi Buffon's emotion
When he is singing Il Canto degli Italiani, the Italian national anthem, it means so much to him he looks as if he is about to burst with joy. Belting out the words with his eyes squeezed shut, he epitomizes the reverence with which the Italians view their national shirt. Buffon is Italy's captain and his leadership and personality is as valuable as his exceptional goalkeeping repertoire and experience. He makes sure his team gives every effort.
3 - Antonio Cassano's unbelievable year
Watching Cassano create a goal for Mario Ballotelli, observe the closing minutes of the semifinal from the substitutes bench as intensely as if he were kicking every ball, and then celebrate this final appearance, it was incredible to think last November he had a stroke, required heart surgery and spent six months recuperating. Once Italy's wild child, he claims to be a different person since his illness. Cassano's stamina is not quite up to 90 minutes but he has been reliable, professional and enthusiastic during this tournament. He has justified Prandelli's faith. Bravo.
4 - Hail Cesare!
Considering he is new to this stage, Cesare Prandelli has overseen an excellent campaign. While it would be churlish to suggest he is without experience, he hardly came into the job with a CV to match some of his predecessors like Marcello Lippi or Giovanni Trapattoni. There were a couple of promotions from Serie B, but Prandelli's canon of good work came outside of Italy's super-elite. He his conducted this tournament with aplomb, forging a team with fantastic spirit and eagerness to perform at their best. They are both robust and skillful, and they have a smart game plan. They are a team which includes some unpredictable performers, but the coach stands firmly by his choices and is very loyal. So far, Prandelli has not put a foot wrong.
5 - Mario Balotelli
There is never a dull moment in the life and times of Balotelli. An Italian colleague predicted, long before the Euro, that he could be the biggest star or the biggest car crash of the tournament. It's the not quite knowing that makes him so fascinating to watch. The shooting star of the semifinal, Balotelli demonstrated brilliantly that his talent has to be indulged. A performance like that at the age of 21 is remarkable. Asked why he doesn't celebrate goals with more obvious pleasure, he replied: "When I score, I don't celebrate because I'm only doing my job. When a postman delivers letters, does he celebrate?" He is a pure one-off. And he is also a fantastic poster boy for a more multicultural Italy. Never change, Mario. Never change.
6 - Crisis? What crisis?
This is beginning to be something of a habit. It's not the first time Italy have arrived at an international finals with the game at home mired in shame and controversy. Paolo Rossi was implicated in a betting scandal but emerged to help Italy to win the 1982 World Cup, earning the golden boot in the process. The Calciopoli match-fixing scandal preceded Italy's victory in the 2006 World Cup. There was yet another investigation into a swindle as Prandelli and his players set off for Poland and Ukraine, but again the adversity appears to have unified the squad and inspired them.
7 - Daniele de Rossi, the midfield general
Despite carrying a sciatic injury, it seems nothing will keep de Rossi from fighting for his cause. He has been lion-hearted, such a vital part of this Italian side in ensuring that they are competitive enough to let Pirlo do his thing. He plays with such visible determination, but there is so much more to his game than dynamic running and tackling. A vital presence around both boxes and everywhere in between. Surely just about everyone would like a de Rossi in their team.
8 - Late-developing, unsung heroes
Alessandro Diamante was a pick from left field. He looks like a scruff, he has never played for the most fashionable teams, and came into contention late as an international player. He had only ever played half a game for Italy before being called into the Euro 2012 squad. Diamante has played a part in three games, and enjoyed his moment in the sun as he dispatched the decisive penalty against England. Federico Balzaretti is another unexpected promotion. He had only a handful of caps before this tournament, his first coming when he was almost 29 years old. He has performed with great vigour.
9 - Italy will not be scared of Spain
The Spanish might be the favorites, and might feel a whole lot better about this fixture since they ended their Italian hoodoo in 2008, but Italy showed in the opening group game of this tournament that they are not fearful of the current international double winners. The Azzurri have grown into this tournament. It's a quality that is often seen as a hallmark of champions, and they have steadily improved during their stay in Poland and Ukraine. Italy traditionally had the better of Spain time and again, and they will relish the chance to try to unnerve Vicente del Bosque's team.
10 - Time for change?
Having been the dominant force in international football over the past four years, Spain play like a team feeling the weight of expectation, dominated by the desire to make sure they don't lose. They have lost a little pizzazz, which explains why a lot of neutrals are eager to check out someone else's party. Nobody does footballing melodrama quite like Italy, and if they can achieve their second European Championship, some 44 years after their first, it will crown an extraordinary journey. This team lost three games in a row just before they arrived in Poland and Ukraine, and looked like they'd fizzled out before they started. Now they are ready for fireworks.