EURO 2012

FOX Soccer Exclusive

Germany must battle Italy's trump card

Preview: Italy doesn't plan to change its style against Germany.
Preview: Italy doesn't plan to change its style against Germany.
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James Horncastle

James Horncastle is a contributing writer for FOXSoccer.com who specializes in coverage of the European game. His work has been prominently featured in The Guardian, FourFourTwo, and The Blizzard.

   
 

Cesare Prandelli remembers where he was when Italy beat West Germany 4-3 in the semifinals of the World Cup in 1970. How can anyone forget the Partita del Secolo or "Game of the Century?"

"For us kids who were 14 at the time, it was the game," the current Italy coach recalled. "I watched it at home on TV with my father, and it was the greatest emotion I’d got from football."

That encounter at Mexico City’s Estadio Azteca remains iconic for so many reasons, such as the great Franz Beckenbauer playing with a sling after dislocating his shoulder. Then, of course, there was the incredible scoreline: Roberto Boninsegna–Karl-Heinz Schnellinger–Gerd Müller–Tarcisio Burgnich–Gigi Riva–Gerd Müller–Gianni Rivera all scored in that order. It was a thriller.

A précis of what happened is enough to give a sense of the occasion. Italy was 1-0 up but conceded an equalizer in the last minute. West Germany then went ahead 2-1 in extra time, but Italy managed to get back on level terms and restore its lead at 3-2. Digging deep within themselves, the West Germans found another equalizer and it was 3-3. Yet, Italy replied almost immediately and ended victorious.

Later generations in Italy have had their own "Where were you when we beat Germany?" moments to speak of. After all, they have provided the nation’s football history with some of its finest chapters. Leaf through it and, after 1970, there’s the 1982 World Cup final, another triumph for Italy, this time 3-1, with the memory of Marco Tardelli’s splendid goal and his overwrought celebration.

Then, more recently, there was the 2006 World Cup semifinal won in extra time again by Italy. Fabio Grosso did his best Tardelli impression after opening the scoring, and then Alessandro Del Piero made sure of the result, finishing off a wonderful counterattack. To make matters worse, it happened on German soil at the tournament they hosted. The "summer fairy tale," as they called it, was over.

"We still have that game in our heads," Germany captain Philipp Lahm admitted. Along with several of his teammates, he would have preferred to meet England in the Euro 2012 semifinals.

"Italy are better than England," Lahm added. "They’re more cunning, better prepared tactically, more difficult to beat. But with four wins in a row, we have shown that it’s difficult to stop us."

Italy never has lost to Germany in a major tournament. In addition to that, its record in semifinals is formidable. Taking all of the Italians' appearances at this stage of the World Cup and European Championship into account, they have played 10, won eight and lost only twice. It’s a source of confidence, for sure, but how much should be read into it?

When reminded of it at Tuesday’s news conference, Germany coach Joachim Löw said: "So what? This isn’t an issue for our young players." He has a point. Only Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Lukas Podolski and Miroslav Klose remain from the team that suffered the heartbreaking defeat to Italy six years ago. The new breed is a fearless bunch.

"They are very strong, superbly organized. . . . But if we play to our full potential, we will come out winners," Mesut Özil claimed. "We are the team to beat," boasted teammate Marco Reus.

He is not wrong. The Germans have won 15 competitive matches in a row. The style and panache with which they have gone about putting that streak together has commanded respect. Regardless of how well Italy played against England, no one is under any illusion whatsoever as to whom the favorite is for Thursday’s game in Warsaw.

Reasons for Italy to be apprehensive start first and foremost with its glaring inability to make the most of the goalscoring opportunities it creates. So far, the Italians have had 87 shots at Euro 2012, 50 of which have been on target. On both counts, that’s comfortably more than any other team. And yet, their conversion rate stands at just 4.6 percent, the worst of those left in the competition.

Another issue raised has been how Germany has benefited from two extra rest days. "It’s a big difference at this moment in time, and there’s little we can do about it," Prandelli said. "The handicap from a physical fitness point of view can’t be made up. Playing a semifinal with a similar disparity is not synonymous with entertainment. In the future, UEFA should think carefully about this schedule problem."

Prandelli is justified in feeling aggrieved. Before this tournament, there were only two previous matches in which a team enjoyed two more rest days than its opponent and those were the semifinals of Euro 2004. On that occasion, the sides that enjoyed more recovery time, Portugal and Greece, beat those who had had less, Holland and the Czech Republic.

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And yet, while disadvantaged, Italy is not fixating on it.

"We can play a great game," Prandelli insisted. "They are a very strong team. They have a tried-and-tested system and more time to recover, but unbeatable teams don’t exist. We’ll study everything and try to hit their few weak points. Of course we’ll try to make the game. We won’t defend in our penalty area. I prefer to concede a goal on the counterattack than suffer in defense for 90 minutes."

Italy did well when it last met Germany in a friendly in February 2011. It showed character by rallying to come back from behind and had two clear penalties denied in a 1-1 draw in Dortmund.

While there were many changes by both teams in the second half and a bad pitch that slowed things down a bit, Italy wasn’t what Germany expected and was able to surprise with a positive approach.

Much encouragement can be drawn from that encounter, even if a lot of the personnel has changed. Still, it will be interesting to discover what either side learned from that experience. At the time, Prandelli said, "We’re not quite at their level yet, but we’ve closed the gap."

So to what extent, then, is Italy any nearer today? We’ll find the answer to that out on Thursday. As for Germany, it will no doubt be hoping that newspaper Bild doesn’t have cause to ask the same question it did of Löw after that friendly 18 months ago.

"Jogi, why can’t we beat the Italians?"

James Horncastle is a European soccer writer with articles published in The Blizzard, Champions magazine and FourFourTwo.

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