PARIS - Seeking to win an unprecedented third consecutive European Championship, Vicente del Bosque's Spain will once again have to see off old foes Italy to retain their crown.

Before winning back-to-back Euros and a maiden World Cup in 2010, Spain suffered an inferiority complex with Italy having never beaten them in five tries at major finals. A quarter-final clash between the two in Vienna in 2008 changed that. Spain -- who had previously suffered a terrible record on penalties -- went through in a shootout before going on to win the tournament. "That is the most important day in the history of the Spanish national team," said captain Iker Casillas.

After winning the World Cup, Spain had to face Italy twice more in retaining the Euros four years ago. A 1-1 draw in the opening match was long forgotten as del Bosque's men thrashed Italy 4-0 in the final. La Roja then also won another shootout between the two in the Confederations Cup semi-finals in 2013. Indeed, the European champions have lost just one of their last 11 meetings with Italy - a 2-1 friendly defeat in 2011.

Chelsea midfielder Cesc Fabregas has been a constant menace to the Azzurri. He scored the winning penalty in 2008, Spain's equaliser in the 2012 opening game and set up David Silva's opener in the final. Fabregas will also be coming up against his future manager as Italian boss Antonio Conte will take over at Stamford Bridge next season. "The way they play will demand the absolute most of us," Fabregas told Spanish sports daily Marca. Spain started the tournament in great form, sweeping aside the Czech Republic and Turkey.

However, a shock 2-1 defeat to Croatia in Bordeaux on Tuesday cost del Bosque's men top spot in Group D and a much easier route to the final. Even if they see off Italy, Spain face having to beat world champions Germany and hosts France for the right to defend their title in Paris on July 10. "We need to get back to playing our best football becuase they will not stop running and fight for every ball," added Fabregas. "They have a very strong defence and they know how to take their chances." Italy have been dealt a huge blow with influential midfielder Antonio Candreva ruled out due to a groin injury. Conte's men have been unfortunate to find themselves on the much tougher side of the draw despite beating the highly-fancied Belgium to top Group E.

"There is a crazy imbalance in the draw for the second round, but those are the rules and we have to respect them," said Conte. The former Juventus boss made eight changes for the 1-0 defeat to the Republic of Ireland on Wednesday with qualification to the last 16 already assured.

Juventus stalwart Giorgio Chiellini will return to partner club teammates Andrea Barzagli and Leonardo Bonucci. And Cheillini is hopeful Italy can reverse their recent run against Spain. "In a way, they're our bogey team," he said.

"But let's keep things in perspective. The Ireland match, with all respect to them, didn't really count for us. "And if we play to our potential, give it everything and limit them where they are strong, I think we can create something special."

Chiellini will also come head-to-head another former Juventus teammate Alvero Morata, who Real Madrid exercised a buyback clause on last week. "I wish him well for the rest of his carer but I hope he has a bad match on Monday," joked Chiellini. "He's a special kind of guy and a player who, as well as having great skills, is only going to get better."

Euro facts: Italy

n             Italy's defeat by the Republic of Ireland halted a run of four straight victories for Antonio Conte's side, during which they had not conceded a single goal.

n             This is Italy's ninth EURO final tournament and their sixth in a row since missing out on the 1992 edition in Sweden. Only twice have they failed to advance through the group stage – in 1996 and 2004.

n             Italy won the 1968 EURO and have been runners-up twice since – in 2000 and 2012.

n             Italy (W7 D3) were among four teams unbeaten in qualifying alongside England, Austria and Romania. The Italians also have the longest ongoing unbeaten UEFA European Championship qualifying run, having avoided defeat in their last 30 qualifying matches.

Euro facts: Spain

n             Spain's 2-1 loss to Croatia in their last Group D outing ended a sequence of 14 EURO finals matches without defeat (W11 D3), stretching back to a 1-0 reversal against Portugal at UEFA EURO 2004; prior to Croatia, they had not conceded in their previous seven EURO finals fixtures, since a 1-1 draw with Italy in 2012.

n             Spain went down 1-0 to France in their sole previous game at the Stade de France, in January 1998.

n             This is Spain's sixth consecutive EURO. They are bidding to triumph for the third time running, having become the first side to win two in a row at UEFA EURO 2012.

n             Spain and Germany/West Germany are the most successful EURO teams having won three editions each.

 

 

Italy v Spain:

five unforgettable meetings

1934 World Cup quarter-finals: Italy 1-1 Spain; Italy 1-0 Spain (replay)

Their first clash at a major tournament was a bruising affair. Italy did most of the bruising. Luis Regueiro and Giovanni Ferrari exchanged goals in Florence, and the game remained 1-1 after extra time which meant a replay the following day. Spain, licking their wounds, were forced to make seven changes and Giuseppe Meazza soon put the hosts ahead. Spain then had two goals ruled out as they were eliminated.

EURO '88 group stage: Italy 1-0 Spain

A tactical battle supreme in Frankfurt, with a 19-year-old Italy defender playing a star role: enter Paolo Maldini. For 90 minutes he marked Spain's vaunted winger Míchel out of the game, paving the way for the only goal midway through the second half. Carlo Ancelotti threading a pass towards Alessandro Altobelli, whose dummy allowed Gianluca Vialli to strike low beyond Andoni Zubizarreta.

1994 World Cup quarter-finals: Italy 2-1 Spain

A simmering rivalry well and truly reached boiling point in Boston. Dino Baggio's long-range strike gave Italy the lead, but the real action came after the break. A nasty flying elbow from Mauro Tassotti caught Luis Enrique in the face – an incident bad enough to earn him an eight-match ban, but unpunished on the day. José Luis Caminero did make it 1-1 but two minutes from time, after a sensational end-to-end move, Roberto Baggio rounded Zubizarreta to fire in the winner.

UEFA EURO 2008 quarter final: Spain 0-0 Italy (Spain win 4-2 on pens)

Spain had never beaten Italy in a competitive game prior to this breakthrough night in Vienna. "I saw nerves in the players," said Luis Aragonés. "My message over and over was that we were the better side and we'd go through." And they did, as Iker Casillas denied Daniele De Rossi and Antonio Di Natale from the spot, leaving Cesc Fàbregas to win it. The 74-year curse was broken.

UEFA EURO 2012 final: Spain 4-0 Italy

Spain had failed to truly sparkle in Poland and Ukraine, though it soon became clear in Kyiv that they had been saving the best for last. David Silva headed in the opener following a mesmeric passing exchange, then Jordi Alba scurried through to make it 2-0. Italy never recovered. After the break Fernando Torres scored for a second EURO final running then teed up fellow substitute Juan Mata to cap a Spain masterclass.