The German revolution after Euro 2000 is approaching its apex. In retrospect, it seems an obvious and logical response to the disastrous performance of 12 years ago, particularly as, since reunification, they have won only one major international trophy, but Germany of all countries could have been excused for keeping the faith in their trademark efficiency. After all, only two years later, long before the revitalised coaching system began to bear fruit, they reached the World Cup final.
The changes have resulted in a thrilling new national side that announced itself through the ruthless exposure of England and Argentina’s shortcomings at the 2010 World Cup, and they continue to tear relentlessly through their opposition: they have scored in each of their last 20 games, netting 51 goals in total, and have won 15 competitive games in succession. It is a record even the West German side of the early 1970s could not match.
Standing in their way of reaching the final are Italy: a team potentially riven with injury problems that have just had to endure extra-time and a penalty shootout in a quarter-final played two days later than Germany’s. Reports suggest Daniele De Rossi, who has excelled at the tournament, is winning his battle for fitness, while Ignazio Abate and Giorgio Chiellini should also be available, but such concerns are far from ideal for a side already likely to be struggling with fatigue.
Germany, conversely, have a wealth of options that allow them to rest players at will. Joachim Low changed his entire front three for the 4-2 victory over Greece, and any significant concern over Bastian Schweinsteiger’s fitness could be resolved by bringing in his Bayern Munich team-mate Toni Kroos. Mario Gotze, one of the three players in the squad that Rafael van der Vaart acknowledged as being of genuine class, has not yet managed to make it onto the field this summer. They are in prime position and they know it. “I believe we are the team you have to beat if you want to win this tournament,” Low said after easing through their quarter-final.
Yet while the recent evidence makes Low’s men clear favourites, history favours the Azzurri: Italy have never lost to Germany in a competitive game, and have claimed two wins and a draw against them in their friendly matches in the last decade. The last competitive meeting was Italy’s 2-0 win in the semi-finals of the 2006 World Cup.
“It's the time to break that series,” forward Lukas Podolski told Bild in the build-up to the game. “Since 2006 we have improved enormously. Today we have a whole different philosophy and a different team. The Italians also know that. One thing is clear – we want to be in the final, so we have to beat the Italians.”
To do so they will have to break another series: under Cesare Prandelli, Italy have not yet lost a competitive game.
Germany player to watch: Philipp Lahm.
A highly capable defender, the captain provided a reminder against Greece that he also poses a goal threat and his raids from left back will be of particular concern for Italy, who are without Christian Maggio through suspension and have doubts over the fitness of Ignazio Abate. If Cesare Prandelli continues to ask his full backs to provide the width to his team, Lahm could thrive.
Italy player to watch: Riccardo Montolivo.
Montolivo, who agreed a move to AC Milan this summer, came into the side for the quarter-final against England in place of Thiago Motta and excelled in the first half. That he missed a glorious chance from close range and then fired his penalty wide in the shootout may have led some to appraise his performance unkindly but, with so much of the pre-match focus on Andrea Pirlo, he may be able to cause real problems if the Germans leave him space in front of the defence.
Key battle: Bastian Schweinsteiger v Andrea Pirlo.
Schweinsteiger was far from his best in the 4-2 victory over Greece and has recently suffered from injury problems, but he has declared himself fit to face Italy and, given his undoubted quality and ability to lead, it would be a significant surprise if he were not in the starting line-up. He will come up against Pirlo, who has a phenomenal capacity for controlling the game. Ahead of the tournament, Spain legend Luis Suarez had suggested he was a finer player than Xavi, and his magisterial showing against England, capped with a Panenka penalty in the shootout, has only enhanced his reputation. If Germany can disrupt him, they should win the game; if Pirlo takes control, Italy’s unblemished record could endure.
Stats: Italy have scored only four goals at Euro 2012 – the least of any semi-finalist since the tournament was expanded to include a quarter-final stage at Euro 96.
Trivia: Riccardo Montolivo’s mother is from Hamburg and has the German flag stitched into his boots. "Part of me is German,” he said, “but I feel Italian.”
Odds: Germany (1.90), Italy (4.50) and the draw (3.40) are on offer with bet365, while Philipp Lahm is 21.00 to score at any time.
Prediction: Spain were able to derail the Germans’ momentum and sneak a 1-0 win at the World Cup two years ago, but the Italians will struggle to repeat that feat this time around. Fortune has favoured the brave so far at Euro 2012, and Cesare Prandelli has vowed to take a proactive approach to the contest, but Germany look to have the stronger attacking threat and fatigue is likely to be terminal in the face of constant attacks.