Xavi and Iniesta. Iniesta and Xavi. These are names forever linked in the history of the game, the little masters whose towering presence was never more apparent than in Sunday's epic restatement of Spain's international pre-eminence.

Others scored the goals that destroyed Italy but it was Xavi Hernández and Andrés Iniesta who ran the show. Iniesta, outstanding in the earlier rounds, produced the killer pass that encouraged Cesc Fábregas to race through and cut back the ball for David Silva to open the scoring in the 14th minute. Four minutes before the interval Xavi found a ball every bit as laceratingly beautiful for Jordi Alba to meet as he sprinted through before guiding his shot past the unprotected Gianluigi Buffon.

And so Spain marched to another triumph on the shoulders of these two diminutive giants. This was an exhibition of the game's capacity for destructive creativity even more conclusive than the one with which they captured the trophy against Germany in Vienna four years ago or the intervening World Cup victory over Holland in Johannesburg.

There were many who expected Italy to dethrone them but Spain attacked the business of defending their title with such purposeful brilliance that the challengers were always struggling to get any sort of a foothold. The travails of a very good team said everything about the control the two midfield generals exerted on the course of the evening.

Until last night this had not been Xavi's best season. He is 32 years old now and even his greatest admirers feared that his game had lost its edge and its snap in recent months. The angle and timing of his passes no longer combined to act, as they had for so long, like the instructions from a GPS device to the man receiving the ball.

While he seemed to fall marginally off the pace, his younger sidekick emerged as the dominant partner. The two of them tend to play on a linked diagonal, from deep-lying inside right to advanced inside-left, and it was to Iniesta's position that the focus switched. The younger by four years, he accepted a greater share of the spotlight, while still demonstrating his ability to score goals as well as make them. It was around the connection between these two that Vicente del Bosque constructed his extraordinary formation, in which his attackers were virtually interchangeable, ready to switch position and function at will, driving defenders to distraction through the lack of a conventional focal point. Fábregas proved an outstanding accomplice on Sunday night, the "false nine" glimpsed by Italy in the opening group match three weeks ago but with whom, at the second time of asking, they were unable to get to grips. And that came about, it seemed, principally because Spain took the pitch determined to prove something to those who had cast doubt on the integrity of their method.

Had they really gone, as charged, from being exponents of joyous attacking play to using their ability to retain possession for long periods merely to stifle opponents? The suggestion seemed not just impertinent but laughable as Xavi and Iniesta controlled a fiesta of positive movement.

And poor Italy, to have been on the end of it. If there is one thing Italian footballers know how to do, it is to accept the need for suffering. Few of their successes have come unaccompanied by agony. But how cruelly they were made to suffer by Spain, who began the match by producing passages of play as finely wrought as anything seen from them since Iniesta joined Xavi in the national side six years ago.

It was certainly to Italy's credit that Spain felt the need to switch their voltage to its highest setting so early in the match, having fallen some way below their most exalted standards in the earlier rounds of the tournament.

There were times in the first half when they simply stripped Italy bare. In between the goals that gave them a 2-0 lead at the interval it was obvious that their midfielders were denying Andrea Pirlo the chance to do what he had done in every previous match of the tournament, which was to establish a pool of light and space from which to direct the efforts of his team-mates. As if Xavi and Iniesta were not busy enough with their creative duties, they also made sure to share the responsibility for inhibiting their opposite number.

Italy had won more friends in this tournament than for many years, and for all sorts of reasons. Pirlo was one, of course, a living restatement of belief in the values of creativity and imagination, a link with the days when playmakers had time and space in which to weave their glowing tapestries. But not when they encounter opponents like those he faced on Sunday, who also reduced Mario Balotelli, the destroyer of Germany, to sullen impotence.

Italy were forced to harry and scuffle for possession, unable to strike the kind of swift, authoritative blows that had prevailed in a memorable semi-final. It was sad to see Giorgio Chiellini go lame after 20 minutes, and Antonio Cassano withdrawn at half-time, and then, in a stroke of terrible misfortune, Thiago Motta pull up only four minutes after coming on as the third and final substitute just before the hour.

Prandelli's men fought on. But playing Spain with a full complement of players is hard enough, and almost impossible when they click into the sort of gear they found on Sunday night. With 10 men it was out of the question and the two late goals with which Fernando Torres and Juan Mata completed the scoring formed a bitter postscript.

No doubt Spain would have won in any event. They were nothing short of irresistible. But it was Italy's dreadful and thoroughly undeserved misfortune to find themselves so handicapped that they were unable even to compete respectably. This was a victory draped in joy and vindication and a defeat wreathed in anguish and regret.