By Jonathan Wilson
Infuriating, exasperating, cocky, vulnerable and, most recently, brilliant. Italian football has a tendency to deal in redemption tales at major tournaments but the case of Mario Balotelli remains remarkable. His pendulum swings at extraordinary speed.
In 1982, Paolo Rossi returned after a ban for match-fixing (he always denied it and one of those who gave evidence against him later admitted to lying) to score six goals in three games as Italy won the World Cup for the third time. The fourth success, in 2006, came in the wake of the calciopoli scandal. Again the stench of match-fixing hangs over the Italian game and again in adversity the squad seems to have found inspiration.
From the off Italy's tournament was always going to be dominated by Balotelli.
In the opening game, against Spain, he played adequately. His movement was good and he should have had a penalty. He lost his temper and was booked. And then he dawdled weirdly over a one-on-one having dispossessed Sergio Ramos. He was substituted a few minutes later and his replacement, Antonio Di Natale, scored Italy's goal - the only goal Spain have conceded in the Euros so far. The post-match press-conference was dominated by the Balotelli issue. Would he start the next game? How was his mood? Why had he wasted that chance?
But it was just one chance. Other than that, he'd played perfectly well. It was a similar story against Croatia. He played neither brilliantly nor poorly but Balotelli is a man who, it seems, can't be viewed with nuance. Again the story was all about him. This time Cesare Prandelli decided to leave him out for the next game, against Ireland. It seemed a harsh decision but it worked. Balotelli came off the bench to score an overhead kick and, since then, he's been excellent. He stretched England constantly in the quarter-final before taking his penalty with icy cool and then scored two splendid goals against Germany in the semi-final.
The first, a header from a precise Cassano cross, was merely professional - the sort of efficient finish that made his pre-match comment that goalscoring was a job like delivering mail make sense.
The second was stunning, though, the sort of thumping finish that brings even neutrals to their feet. Even Balotelli celebrated that one. Suddenly he is Italy's joint top-scorer of all time in European Championships and a serious candidate to be top-scorer at the tournament.
Yet the 21-year-old had undergone a similar transformation at Manchester City. On April 8 he was being described as a liability after a dreadful performance at Arsenal in which he was sent off.
Roberto Mancini seemed to suggest afterwards he would never play for the club again. Yet five weeks later he was playing the precise assist to Sergio Aguero that won the title in injury-time against QPR. He is a player who seems to deal only in extremes.
Cassano's tale, of course, is just as improbable. He had an ischemic stroke last October after Roma's defeat against AC Milan. "For 36 hours I did not understand anything," he said. "I struggled to speak and did not remember what had happened to me." He only returned to action the weekend that Balotelli was playing appallingly at Arsenal.
Is he the calmer one of the strike pairing? Maybe, but such things are relative. "A leader is someone who runs more than the rest, and I don't do that," Cassano said. "A leader is someone who is always humble, and I am not. A leader is someone who is always available from the morning to the evening, and I am not. Let's say, as Prandelli does, that I am a leader of technique." However unlikely or unorthodox, the relationship works.
"When we played Italy in the group stage we tried to deactivate their two strikers. We will try to solve that problem for this game the same way," said the Spain midfielder Cesc Fabregas. "Balotelli is a great player - he demonstrated this by scoring two superb goals against an extremely good team. Clearly he is a threat, and also Cassano and the other strikers. We will try to deactivate this threat."
That is Italy's strength. Other sides have defended deep against Spain and frustrated the, but have lacked the incisiveness on the break to hurt them. Even Portugal, with Cristiano Ronaldo on one flank and Nani on the other struggled to create chances. Italy in that game in Gdansk, though, genuinely troubled Spain even if the world and European champions again dominated possession.
In part that was down to the wing-backs in Italy's 3-5-2. Spain's system is narrow, the wingers inverted and that means they have a problem against wing-backs. Andres Iniesta and David Silva often found themselves too far from Emanuele Giaccherini and Christian Maggio to close them down. If the full-backs advanced, though, they risked leaving themselves two or two at the back - something they dared not do with two players as imaginative and explosive as Balotelli and Cassano. As a result, both wing-backs had time on the ball. The chances are, though, that Cesare Prandelli will stick with the 4-1-3-2 he has used since Andrea Barzagli's return from injury.
Italy have not won the Euros since 1968 - coincidentally the same year Manchester City last won the league. Balotelli could end both those droughts in the space of a month yet it is Spain who stand on the brink of the greater history. No side has ever before won three successive major trophies. "Spain have made history already," said the defender Sergio Ramos. "Being in a third final in a row hasn't been done by anyone else. Whatever happens on Sunday, the whole of the Spain can be proud of us and we can go home and rest with our heads held high, but of course we know that no one remembers that runners up so we want to go and win it now."
That desire has perhaps made them cautious: the final is a game between the proactive but anxious Spaniards and an Italy team that is reactive but exhilarated by aspiration.