If ever the term "clash of the titans" were to be used in the sporting arena, then this would certainly qualify for that epithet. The second semi final of the 2012 European Championship... a face-off between two of the biggest footballing nations in the world... high-profile players... at stake a spot in the final and a chance at sporting immortality... it has everything you could possibly want.
Three time World champions Germany will lock horns with four time champions Italy, to earn the right to face reigning world and European title holders Spain in the final on Sunday. The last remaining semi finalists have stunning pedigrees, having recorded four European crowns (the Germans have three of them); in addition to their World Cup wins and a combined total of 30 semi final appearances. They also boast world-class talent, in abundance, across every position on the pitch.
From the legendary Gianluigi Buffon to the ageless and silky smooth Andrea Pirlo and the sensationally volatile Mario Balotelli up front, the Azzurri are always a force to be reckoned with. It matters not that the sport is facing catastrophic judicial investigations back home... these men are playing for pride and honour and that is often the strongest motivation of all.
Over in the other camp, the Germans possess one of the most balanced and feared squads in international football... a near perfect marriage of metronomic attention to detail, footballing brilliance and that comforting arrogance of a people who never settle for anything other than the best and will never let you forget that. The indomitable dynamism of Sami Khedira and Bastian Schweinsteiger in the middle of the park, the speed, power and guile of Lukas Podolski, Thomas Muller, Andreas Schürrle, Marco Reus and Mario Goetze combined with the clinical finishing of either Mario Gomez or Miroslav Klose, all on a defensive foundation provided by Philip Lahm, Mats Hummels, Holger Badstuber and Jerome Boateng.
Germany - When the draw for the group stages was made, neutrals would have been immeasurably excited at the opponents handed to Joachim Low and Cesare Prandelli (they themselves, perhaps, less so). Die Mannschaft were asked to negotiate a group with 2010 World Cup finalists and pre-tournament favourites Holland, Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal and an always dangerous Denmark side. Italy, meanwhile, were given the proud and mercurial Croatians, the Republic of Ireland and, most daunting, the defending champions, Spain. The draw was tough but both sides were expected to come through... and they did, albeit in contrasting styles.
The Germans did their reputation as one of the world's best teams no harm by dismantling all three opponents with, it always seemed, much in reserve. Portugal came and went 0-1, the Dutch handled with disdain and beaten 1-2 and the Danes by the same score. Despite criticism about not scoring enough goals, the Germans, in truth, have not needed to be expansive. Their meticulous displays suggest a side and tactician confident in themselves and their abilities... the European Championships really come alive only in the knock-outs and the group stages are only about getting to the latter stages. Most alarmingly for Italy, Low rested three of his star forward line of four against Greece in the quarter finals (Muller, Podolski and Gomez were rested for Reus, Schürrle and Klose), and the Germans wound up putting four goals past one of the most miserly defences in Europe. The German bench is one of the few in international football capable of putting out as world class a first eleven as the first team. Italy has not that luxury.
On the flip side, there is a general feeling that the German goal scoring machine has not yet clicked into top gear. Mesut Ozil is the creative mainspring of the German team and the Real Madrid man has yet to sparkle as he did in South Africa two years ago. Podolski and Muller, similarly, have been industrious but not exceptional. Could it be that the shock of the 3-5 friendly defeat to Switzerland has prompted a more cautious approach from Low?
It doesn't seem so though. They are the highest scoring team in the tournament, with nine strikes, and, in South Africa, the side really only exploded after the group stages; the scored five in the groups (the same as now) but hammered four each past England and Argentina in the first knock-out round and the quarter final, respectively. They lost 0-1 to Spain in the semi finals but recovered to put three past Uruguay to claim third place. History, therefore, suggests, as Low has repeatedly said, the Germans have yet to come to the party!
Italy - The Italians faced the most difficult of all opening games - a tie against a Spanish team that has been the undisputed kings of international football for four years now and a side so stuffed with talent that even the German bench pales in comparison. The fact that Prandelli's men forced Vicente del Bosque's side to settle for a 1-1 draw - indeed, they forced Spain to fight for a draw after scoring first - said much about the traditional defensive resolve of the Azzurri. It was still there and match-fixing or no match-fixing, it wouldn't go away. Former AC Milan midfielder Pirlo, who now pulls the strings at domestic rivals Juventus, has rolled back the years at Euro 2012 and reminded the world why he was once the most feared deep-lying playmaker in the world. His range of passing, his vision and, above all, his confidence on the ball was exemplified by that cheeky penalty against England.
The Italians do not, perhaps, have the same degree of talent across the pitch as the Germans do but that really doesn't matter. Prandelli has succeeded in building a world-class team around a spine consisting of a legend like Buffon in goal (the spot kick save against Ashley Cole in the quarter final shows the Juve shot stopper still has what it takes), Pirlo in the middle and the strength and pace of Mario Balotelli up front and they will trouble Germany... make no mistake about that.
The 2006 World champions followed up their 1-1 draw against Spain with another 1-1 result against Croatia before beating the Irish 2-0 to qualify. It was not, by any stretch, a commanding performance from them but it was typically Italian - strong, resilient and just about enough to qualify. The Italians are past masters of pacing themselves through a major tournament and the sudden verve with which they took out England could be indicative of side finally opening up.
What could trouble them? Well, they work hard for each other and in Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini, they have three top class centre backs. However, the latter is an injury doubt and the pace and power of Podolski, Muller and Gomez could trouble them. The movement off the ball that the German front line can create, with Ozil behind them, is somewhat the way Spain play and that could be problematic for Prandelli. Does he instruct Ignazio Abate and Federico Balzaretti to drop back deeper to hold off attacks down their flank? If he does that then he will also have to ask Pirlo, Claudio Marchioso and Thiago Motta to drop back as well, otherwise the space between the two lines could be an open invitation for Ozil, Schweinsteiger and Khedira to run riot. Alternatively, does he throw caution to the winds and push his players forward, hoping to unsettle the Germans? The latter would play into Low's hands because the Germans are most dangerous on the counter and Italy does not really have the pace to allow that to happen too often.
Team News and Tactics:
Germany - The biggest piece of good news for Die Mannschaft is that Bayern Munich's Schweinsteiger should be fit to play. There were concerns the midfielder may not recover from an ankle injury. Should he not play, however, Germany run the risk of giving Pirlo far too much time and space... never a good idea. There are no other injury concerns, fortunately, for Low.
The most interesting point will be to see if the coach restores what is normally his first choice forward line - Podolski, Muller and Gomez - or retain faith in Schürrle, Reus and Klose. The latter trio were instrumental in the 4-2 win over Greece, with Reus and Klose both scoring. In addition, Ozil seems to play better with the veteran Klose up front and an on-fire Ozil is certainly needed to unlock the Italians.
There is unlikely to be any change through the rest of the team, meaning Manuel Neuer will start in goal, with Boateng, Hummels, Badstuber and Lahm in front of him. Khedira will start as the defensive midfielder, rotating attacking responsibilities with Schweinsteiger (or Toni Kroos, if the latter is not fit).
Tactically Germany will be as they always are. A well-organised and well-drilled outfit that love to soak up pressure before bursting forward at speed. Their counterattacks against England and Argentina in the last World Cup and the game-winning goal against Denmark, scored by stand-in right back Lars Bender being perfect examples.
Italy - Prandelli will have a few more headaches than Low ahead of this game. Juventus centre back Chiellini is a doubt, as are Roma midfielder Daniele De Rossi and Milan full back Abate. There are suggestions he could compensate be reverting to a three-man central defence, particularly since his other right back, Christian Maggio is suspended. A three man defence, however, may be somewhat suicidal against the Germans, for whom much of their attacking play goes down the flanks... this would mean allowing Podolski or Muller or Ozil or any of the other attackers free reign.
Moreover, the success of the three man defence would depend on three strong central players and at the moment Prandelli has only two - Bonucci and Barzagli. A third could have been De Rossi but he too is an injury concern. A more feasible option could be to drop someone like Motta or Marchioso to the centre of defence while pushing Bonucci out to one of the flanks; Balzaretti will cover the other.
The advantage of the latter move would be freeing up space in the centre of midfield to bring either Riccardo Montolivo or Sebastian Giovinco into the side, allowing for a bit more creativity. However, that has its own problems. Will a makeshift central defensive pairing keep out Gomez or Klose?
- Germany and Italy have played seven times in competitive fixtures. The Germans have yet to win, having lost three of those. The last time they met was in the 2006 World Cup, when the Italians won in extra time
- Hummels and Khedira are the only players in the tournament so far to not have a single foul registered against them
- The last time Italy was in the semi final of the European Championship was back in 2000. They beat the Dutch on penalties, only to lose the final in extra time to France
- Germany are on a 15 game winning streak (competitive games only) - a record, according to UEFA
- The Germans have reached the semi finals of major tournaments on 17 occasions. They have lost only six of those
Where to Watch Live:
You can follow the action live from 7 pm (BST) on BBC One and BBC One HD, as well as BBC Radio 5 live and the BBC Sport Web site. You can also follow the match live on UEFA's official Web site.