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Something's Got to Give: Previewing Germany vs. Italy

Germany and Italy have shown themselves to be the strongest competitors at Euro 2016, but on Saturday night one will be heading home. Can Italy's tactical acuity overcome the German machine?

by Jim Weeks
01 July 2016, 3:25pm

Andreas Gebert/EPA

The Euro 2016 quarter-finals are a varied affair. A Portugal team yet to win inside 90 minutes have already dispatched dark horses Poland. Fairytale heroes Iceland will play hosts France. The best Welsh side in half a century side face an increasingly potent Belgium. And then there is the small matter of Germany and Italy – the two most successful European nations in football history – facing each other in Bordeaux. It's near impossible to call.

Actually, past meetings suggests that this can go only one way. Eight times these two superpowers have met at major tournaments – first in Santiago, Chile, during the 1962 World Cup – but never have Germany emerged as winners. Four Italian victories, four draws. It seems the Germans do have a weakness, and its reared its head once more.

If you want a revenge narrative for Joachim Löw's side, this is set up nicely. Their most recent meeting came four years ago, when Italy won 2–1 to book a spot in the Euro 2012 final. The Italians won 2–0 after extra-time at the same stage of the 2006 World Cup, a tournament that Germany hosted. Italy vs. Germany was the final of the 1982 World Cup, the Azzurri winning 3–1. And, in the semi-finals of the 1970 tournament, Italy edged it 4–3 after extra-time. This is not just a clash of huge teams: for the Germans, it's very personal.

Germany were stunned by Italy in the semi-finals of Euro 2012 // Jens Wold/EPA

It goes without saying that this German side is capable of avenging those defeats, of course. A good chunk of the squad that deservedly won the World Cup two years ago is intact, and the team seemed to move through a few gears when they defeated Slovakia 3-0 last Sunday. In the group stage they looked somewhat sluggish and wasteful in front of goal; no more of that against the unfortunate Slovaks. Germany once again seemed the real deal.

Their defence is built on the same foundations as 2014: Manuel Neur between the sticks, Mats Hummels and Jérôme Boateng as centre-backs.

READ MORE: Surveying the Expanded 24-Team Tournament

The impressive young Joshua Kimmich came in at right-back for the final group game and remained there against Slovakia. That makes Jonas Hector the only non-Bayern man in the back four, a fact that should worry both international and club managers across Europe.

From here it's formidable stuff: Toni Kroos, Sami Khedira, Thomas Müller, Mesut Özil and Julian Draxler form a midfield/attacking-midfield quintet that can carve open pretty much any defence – even, you would suspect, the much-vaunted Italian back-line.

It's in front of goal that Germany are arguably weakest in 2016. Muller should be chipping in with goals – he's netted 10 across two World Cups – but is yet to score at Euro 2016. Ozil missed a penalty against Slovakia. And the man designated as striker, the back-from-the-wilderness Mario Gomez, didn't find the net until the Slovakia game.

Gomez got off the mark against Slovakia // Laurent Dubrule/EPA

But with goals from Boateng (his first for Die Mannschaft) and the impressive Draxler, Germany eased fears that they might be all talk and no end product. Running out 3-0 winners over a side England couldn't muster one against suggested that they can be clinical. Lukas Podolski – presumably in the squad for his experience and winning smile as much as his football – was in bullish mood afterwards.

"We made the first step and then we wait for Spain or Italy – it doesn't matter who – and I hope we will beat them. Then we will be in the semi-final."

It is difficult to bet against Germany doing just that. Certainly pre-tournament you'd have laid money on them making the semi-finals at the very least. But at the time we didn't know quite what sort of Italian side they would be facing in the last eight.

READ MORE: The Heroes Meet the Hosts – Previewing Iceland vs. France

The current incarnation of the Azzurri was described as the worst in years by people who know what they're talking about. Having won their group with a game to spare, Antonio Conte's men were handed a huge test in the round of 16 against holders Spain. They played the Spanish off the park, taking the lead on 33 minutes through Giorgio Chiellini and adding a second via the superb Graziano Pellè in injury time.

Their reward? A quarter-final against the 2014 World Cup winners. If Italy want to win Euro 2016, they will have to do so the hard way.

On paper at least, this team is certainly not comparable to the World Cup-winning squads of 1982 and 2006. Nor does it possess the kind of star names of less successful tournaments. Particularly in the final third, there is a dearth of box-office talent: no Rossi, no Baggio, no Del Piero, no Vieri. Instead, the man who scored 11 league goals for Southampton last term. Would Pellè have made the England squad?

But Italy have something that has been shouted about so much at this tournament that it's fast becoming a cliche: they're a team. From wild-eyed manager Conte down, every member of the squad seems to possess a burning desire to succeed in France. And, tactically, the boss has been in a class of his own.

Conte expresses some calm tactical observations to his team // Daniel Dal Zennaro/EPA

For all of his deserved credit, Conte has the luxury of an incredibly solid foundation on which to build his team. When you are able to transplant the best back-four in Italy directly from Juventus – goalkeeper included – life becomes that little bit easier. 38-year-old skipper Gianluigi Buffon remains an excellent shot stopper and, perhaps more importantly, is a passionate and vastly experienced leader on the pitch. Much has been made of him singing the nation anthem with chest-thumping gusto, but the childlike joy of his post-match celebrations tell us just as much. Buffon is more determined to win now than he was in 2006, because at this stage every opportunity might be his last.

In front of him is the same defensive trio he works with at Juve: Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli, who Spain found almost impossible to break down. They know what is expected of them by the coach: after Belgium were handed a chance on goal in the opening encounter, Conte was seen shouting, "I will kill you, I will kill you," at his players. And to look Conte's eyes, he bloody meant it.

But Conte wants the world to know that this Italy side are not simply about defending resolutely and hoping to nick a goal on the break. After the Spain win he said: "Today we showed everyone that Italy are not just 'Catenaccio'. Let me repeat it, because this team plays football. We're well-organised, both in attack and defence. Often people think Italy are only about defence, but that's not true. I am not a counter-attacking coach."

READ MORE: The Cult – Gianluigi Buffon

Wing-backs Mattia de Sciglio and Alessandro Florenzi were crucial against the Spanish, providing intense attacking bursts from the flanks. Daniele De Rossi, who with 103 caps is second only to Buffon (157) in this squad, acts as the deepest midfielder, with Marco Parolo and Emanuele Giaccherini going forward in front of him. Unfortunately for the Azzurri, De Rossi is set to miss the game through injury. With natural replacement Thiago Motta suspended, Conte has something of a dilemma.

One of the big stars against Spain was Pellè. Respected but not revered in England, he was key to nullifying the crucial outlet of Sergio Busquets, and later bagged a deserved goal. His strike partner, Brazilian-born Eder, was less clinical, though this was perhaps more the mark of a fine display from David de Gea.

It was said that Italy vs. Spain had come a round too early, and the same at least could be said for this tie. In truth it would make a worthy final, but we'll have to be satisfied with it as a last-eight offering. On Monday night Iceland became the story of Euro 2016 and they have certainly been adept at making the most of what they have. But it's fair to say that the most impressive sides thus far – those looking most likely to lift the trophy – have been Italy and Germany. Only one can make the semi-finals, though. Something's got to give.

@Jimmy_Weeks

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