Just like in the World Cup semifinals six years ago, Germany is the favorite entering Thursday's European Championship semifinal match against a surprising Italy squad that is building momentum and maintaining focus despite a match-fixing scandal.
Both teams like to attack constantly, setting up a tantalizing game in Warsaw.
“At this point, the squads that win are the ones that advance their defensive lines and that have the courage to attack,” Italy coach Cesare Prandelli said. “Some of these guys are just starting to realize the extraordinary things they're capable of.”
Adding to the luster is that Italy-Germany matches have often produced the extraordinary—and Italy has always come out on top at major tournaments.
The 4-3 Italy win in the 1970 semifinals in Mexico City is still remembered as one of the greatest World Cup matches, and Italy's 2-0 win in extra time six years ago is also part of Azzurri lore.
Veteran Germany forward Miroslav Klose, who just concluded his first season with the Italian club Lazio, attributed his country's troubles in the series to tenseness ahead of big matches.
“The Italians are more easygoing about things,” Klose said. “It could be a small advantage for them ahead of such a match.”
In 2006, Italy was also involved in a match-fixing scandal much like the betting problems affecting the squad today, and beating host Germany in the cauldron that is the Westfalenstadion in Dortmund seemed like an impossible task.
“We've improved enormously since 2006,” said Lukas Podolski, another veteran Germany striker. “We have a completely different philosophy and a different team. The Italians know this, too.”
Like most modern squads, Germany now attacks in every which way—either through 22-year-old winger Thomas Mueller, who led the 2010 World Cup with five goals, counterpart Podolski, playmaker Mesut Oezil or the center forwards Mario Gomez and Klose.
Gomez is one of four players leading the tournament with three goals.
Of the four semifinalists, Germany is the only squad with a perfect record, having cruised through a group featuring the Netherlands, Portugal and Denmark, then pushing aside Greece 4-2 in the quarterfinals.
Germany coach Joachim Loew has used both Gomez and Klose as his lone striker, relying on Gomez in the group stage but the going with Klose against Greece, when he changed his entire forward line—with Marco Reus and Andre Schuerrle playing for Mueller and Podolski on the flanks.
“Italy is a completely different caliber than Greece,” Loew said. “We may make one or two changes.”
The Azzurri are coming off a draining shootout victory over England and have two fewer days than Germany to prepare for the semifinals.
“We don't have many days to get our energy back,” Prandelli said. “It's going to take a lot to beat them, but if we prepare for the match well there are no unbeatable squads.”
Prandelli has also changed his lineup over the last couple matches, with Mario Balotelli and Antonio Di Natale alternating alongside Antonio Cassano in attack.
Di Natale came off the bench and scored Italy's first goal of the tournament against Spain and started the final group game against Ireland, while Balotelli played all 120 minutes against England and Di Natale never left the bench.
Whoever plays, expect the type of attacking football Italy displayed against England, when the Azzurri produced 35 attempts on goal to England's nine, and 20 shots on target to only four for the English.
However, Italy failed to score against England, with Balotelli in particular failing to take advantage of numerous chances.
“We've got to play our match and we've got to take risks, otherwise we're going to allow a goal sooner or later,” Prandelli said. “I would prefer allowing a goal in a counterattack than waiting and suffering for 20 minutes.”
Italy's top defender, Giorgio Chiellini, and key midfielder Daniele De Rossi are battling injuries. The Azzurri also have a problem at right back, with Ignazio Abate struggling due to a muscle problem and Christian Maggio suspended for accumulated yellow cards.
“They did not look to me like they were running out of power,” Loew said. “Four days should be enough rest for any professional.”