Warsaw: Spain arrived at Euro 2012 the favourites, but, with the media on their backs from day one, they have had to fight their way to the final, as people have queued up to dismiss their chances and criticise their style.
The last European team to achieve a hat-trick of successive final appearances was West Germany in the 1970s, which makes Spain`s performance over the past six years all the more impressive. After winning Euro 2008, they followed that up with victory in South Africa at the 2010 World Cup, and now they have sealed their place in the final of this European Championship. Should they win it on Sunday they will become the first team to retain the Henri Delaunay Cup, as well as the first to win three consecutive major tournament. Below are the five things that have helped La Roja reach their third consecutive showpiece.
CASILLAS AND HIS DEFENCE
With opponents struggling to have the ball for long enough to trouble his goal, Spain`s goalkeeper has been well-protected by his team during this tournament, but on the occasions when he has been called into action, he has shone.
Casillas became the first player ever to win 100 international games as La Roja triumphed over Portugal on Wednesday, in what was his 136th appearance for his country. Since Antonio Di Natale`s goal for Italy in the first game, he has now gone 419 minutes without conceding. And he has pulled off some crucial saves in that time, particularly from Ivan Rakitic late on in the crucial final group game against Croatia.
NERVES OF STEEL
Vicente del Bosque`s side have proved that they possess the steely grit and determination needed to withstand pressure and take their chances when they arise.
Last night, Sergio Ramos` `Panenka` penalty perfectly epitomised Spain`s confidence. With the score in the shoot-out tied at 2-2, Ramos stepped up and nonchalantly chipped his spot-kick into the back of the net, as Portugal`s goalkeeper, Rui Patricio, despairingly dived to his left. The pressure was on Bruno Alves, the Seleccao`s next penalty taker, and the big centre-back could not stand up to it, slamming his spot-kick onto the crossbar. It meant that Cesc Fabregas could then win the shoot-out with the next kick.
The Barcelona man showed his own composure under pressure by duly obliging.
STRENGTH IN DEPTH
When Spain have struggled to create chances against well-organised and populated defences during this tournament, Del Bosque has been able to turn to his bench and bring on players that have made the difference.
Fernando Torres, for all his missed chances, caused the Italy defence all sorts of problems after coming on as a substitute in La Roja`s first group game, while Jesus Navas netted the vital match-winning goal against Croatia after he came off the bench in the second half.
In the quarter-final against France and the semi-final against Portugal, Del Bosque has brought on Pedro and Navas, and on both occasions the speedy duo have unsettled the opposition defences. It is telling that in the penalty shoot-out on Wednesday, it was substitute Cesc Fabregas that smashed home the winning spot-kick.
The only thing missing from Andres Iniesta`s tournament so far is a goal. The Barcelona maestro orchestrated Spain`s progression from a treacherous group, before dictating the quarter-final against France.
Iniesta has had 13 shots on target over the course of La Furia Roja`s five games, yet has somehow failed to find the back of the net, with Shay Given in particular pulling off a string of fine saves to thwart the Barca man during the 4-0 thrashing of Republic of Ireland.
While some of his team-mates have drifted in and out of games, Iniesta has thrust himself to the forefront, demanding the ball at every opportunity and lambasting his team-mates when they do not provide him with it. He has been exactly what Spain have needed.
Spain may have allowed their opposition few chances to trouble Iker Casillas, but on those rare occasions when teams have borne down on his goal, some of the finishing has been woeful. Cristiano Ronaldo wasted three good set-piece opportunities in the quarter-final on Wednesday, failing to hit the target on each occasion, while Ivan Rakitic missed an easy header during La Roja`s 1-0 victory over Croatia in the group stage. Interpret the poor finishing how you will, but it appears that Spain have been dealt one or two slices of luck en route to the final.