When Saturday's quarter-final between Spain and France ended, most of the German fans around me stared at the screen in something approaching stupor. A few awkward moments of silence passed, then someone emptied his glass and said: "Gosh, what a bore. We'll hammer this lot."
His tongue was planted in his cheek, but not very firmly. The overriding impression the first two weeks of Euro 2012 had left on the German public and the team's supporters was that Germany and Spain were basically playing in a different league, which was borne out by the fact that everyone put everybody behind the ball when meeting these teams.
The second lesson learned from those two weeks appeared to be that Germany had gained a lot of ground on the Spaniards during the last couple of years and had maybe, whisper it, already overtaken them in terms of style and class.
On the same evening, a few hours later, Bayer Leverkusen's former business manager Reiner Calmund appeared on a panel of pundits debating precisely this state of affairs. The general opinion was that Spain, despite not playing at their best, had never really been in danger of being knocked out, despite playing a team that had previously been considered a dark horse, while the Germans had already beaten two other dark horses during the group stage and had now won no less than 15 competitive games in a row, setting a new world record previously co-held by... Spain.
That led the show's host to ask whether it could really be that Spain and Germany were so much better than anyone else and if it would now come down to these two teams in the final, with the semis being a formality.
At that point, Calmund raised his voice, as is his wont, and said that if the European Championship were contested under the league system, with each team playing each other home and away, there was not the slightest doubt that Germany and Spain would ultimately top the table far ahead of the pack. However, he added, in the knockout rounds of a tournament, even the best team could of course slip up and be sent packing. Like I said, that was Saturday. Then came Sunday and something unexpected happened: Italy.
The instant Alessandro Diamanti's penalty hit the back of the net, Germany suddenly realised there would be a semi-final to be played before the supposedly preordained meeting with Spain in Kiev. And a tricky semi-final at that. Miroslav Klose spoke for many when he said: "I'd had a gut feeling that England would go through." It was hope more than a gut feeling, though.
There is a reason the majority of German fans, pundits and even players had hoped to meet England in the semis. (Even before the Greece game, Philipp Lahm said England were his preferred opponent for the semis.) However, this hasn't much to do with England but everything with Italy.
If our national team has a bogey team, it's Italy. We have won only seven out of 30 games against them. We haven't beaten them since a friendly on neutral ground, in Zurich, back in 1995. We have scored only two goals against the Azzurri in the last five games. Finally, Germany have never ever beaten Italy in a competitive game. It sounds unbelievable, but you can look it up.
Of course none of this really means anything once the match on Thursday kicks off and there are also quite a few German fans who welcome Italy as an opponent because it gives Germany a chance to take late revenge for that painful semi-final defeat in 2006. Plus, perhaps this terrible track record will turn out to be a blessing in disguise, as the German players are going to be fully focused on Thursday, knowing they can make history by breaking an age-old spell. Which leaves the question as to which German players will attempt to do that.
On Saturday, Lukas Podolski said he expected to start the semi-final and there is a chance he could be right. Andre Schurrle, who started the Greece game in Podolski's position, was one of the two German players who disappointed in this match. What's more, with Schurrle on the left wing and Marco Reus on the right, Low would have two wide men who like to cut inside and this might not be ideal against Italy, especially if the Azzurri line up with three at the back again, as they have done against Spain. (It's unlikely, though, as this system was probably only chosen because Andrea Barzagli was out with a calf strain.)
The second German player who disappointed against Greece was Bastian Schweinsteiger. Considering Joachim Low has been prone to surprise during this tournament, there is a possibility he will bench Schweinsteiger and replace him with Toni Kroos.
I debated this question with an English journalist who knows the German team very well on Monday and we arrived at the conclusion that Schweinsteiger will start the semi-final – though we did so via separate routes. I said that Low would play him, if only for the effect his presence has on the team, and instruct him to keep it simple, to lead by just being there instead of trying to orchestrate play.
My English colleague argued that starting Kroos, a natural playmaker who can't play in his preferred position because we happen to have a guy called Mesut Ozil, would constrain the team's best player so far, Sami Khedira. He said Khedira had matured at Real and had not only taken over Schweinsteiger's role as the team leader but also his role in front of the back four, meaning Khedira is now the one who moves upfield more often.
In any case, we agreed on Schweinsteiger – and then failed to agree on who would or should play upfront, Mario Gomez or Miroslav Klose. The English journalist said Gomez is a confidence player who needs to start while Klose copes well with coming off the bench and should thus be used as the ace in the hole, while I felt that Klose, having done so well at Lazio for most of the season, is better suited to troubling an Italian defence.
Which, regardless of who is right and who is wrong, tells you that the Germans have so many options, so many different ways in which they could beat the Azzurri. The players must be alert, but not worried. A few minutes after the England game had ended, Riccardo Montolivo said the semis would be tough for Italy because Germany had been the best team so far. He was right.© ESPN