Jun 27, 2012, 9:48 PM EDT
Germany will be the fourth team in FIFA’s top eight on Italy’s road to Kiev. Nobody thinks FIFA’s rating are worth much, but as a quick-and-dirty way to describe Italy’s level of competition, they work pretty well. Spain, Croatia and England are all good teams, as is Germany. Yet to this point at the European championships, Italy remains undefeated.
It’s a strange kind of undefeated, though. They’ve only won one match, beating Ireland 2-0 – the fewest goals Ireland allowed in a match. Based on those results, it’s hard to describe how good Italy actually is. Conclusions have to be succinct. They’re good at prevention, seemingly bad at goal creation and stay close to any opponent. Aside from Italy’s ability to induce draws, we don’t have much to go on.
That’s what makes projecting their semifinal versus Germany so difficult. Reflexively, Germany has to be favored. The implied logic: We’ve seen Germany play to a certain level; Italy’s highs haven’t reached that level; Therefore, Germany is the better team.
And they may truly be the better team, in a cosmic, irrelevant, let’s run Monte Carlo simulations until we can tease this out kind of way. All that matters on Thursday is how they match up with Italy, and based on what we’ve seen throughout this tournament (and through most of the Azzurri’s history), the Italians will be able to hold their own.
Whether Germany will be able to do the same is a more interesting proposition. The favorites are talented, skilled, and prolific, but they’re far from perfect. The malaise they’ve shown during second halves is the type of characteristic Italy can exploit. Against the Azzurri, Germany’s going to have to play much closer to mistake-free soccer than we saw in the quarterfinals, when an underdog Greek side was able to pull even in the second half.
Germany’s going to have to play their first complete game of the tournament. Thursday at 2:45 p.m. Eastern, we find out if they have it in them.
1. Attrition condition
Right back Ignacio Abate had to leave the England match with a leg injury. Midfielder Daniele de Rossi came out with symptoms of sciatica. Central defender Giorgio Chiellini missed the match with a thigh injury. All three are expected to be back for Germany, which is good because with Christian Maggio suspended, Abate’s the squad’s only natural right back.
Antonio Cassano can’t play a full match. Andrea Pirlo looked to be slowing before a long rest ahead of the quarterfinal. Head coach Cesare Prandelli admits the squad is tired. Throw in injured Thiago Motta, and more than half of Italy’s choice starting XI have questions surrounding them coming into Thursday’s match.
Italy is losing a battle of attrition. With Germany coming in off two extra days rest already having a deeper squad, fatigue may cancel out all of Italy’s guile, leaving the Azzurri there for the picking.
2. Our one launching pad
Against England, Italy again showed that everything goes through Andrea Pirlo, a dangerous proposition given the 33-year-old’s apparent trouble with short rest. But even if the Juventus maestro is fine for Thursday’s match, there’s the tactical aspect to Italy’s lack of other options.
Over their quarterfinal’s first 15 minutes, Pirlo had trouble dictating play. England forwards Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck did a good job of either preventing the ball from getting to him or hassling him once it had arrived. Then they stopped, and Pirlo went back to being his normal orchestrating self. Italy dominated the rest of the game.
Are the Germans as likely to sacrifice marking for shape? Or, if you don’t feel like giving England the benefit of the doubt, are they as likely to ignore Italy’s best player?
It’s hard to imagine Joachim Löw being so brazen about his team’s chances. Pirlo’s likely seen his last free ride of the tournament.
3. Not afraid to change
Löw made three surprise changes for Greece, shaking up a team that went undefeated through the “Group of Death” – an effort to craft a more fluid attack. In hindsight, this seems less a response to Greece’s defense than preparation for the England-Italy winner. Defeating Greece was never going to be a problem, but getting an attack in place that had the movement and skill to best the Italians? Perhaps Löw didn’t think he could just flip a switch.
If that was Italy was in his sights when Löw picked his Greece XI, Miroslav Klose will almost surely play in place of Mario Gomez again. Marco Reus will also likely find a way into the team, his work with Mesut Özil too much to resist. The only question is whether Lukas Podolski or Thomas Muller will make way.
The midfield could also change. Löw and Bastian Schweinsteiger insist the German midfielder will play despite the player’s confirmation that a late winter ankle injury has not fully healed. The effect on his movement has been obvious, even if he’s been able to compensate in other ways. Against Italy, having Schweinsteiger as a fulcrum at the base of midfield wouldn’t be a bad thing, though if Löw feels he’s too limited to have the needed impact in a Euro semifinal, Toni Kroos could get the call.
4. No more like before
Having allowed only three goals at Euro 2012, Germany’s far from a leaky ship. That all three goals were very preventable begs the question of whether the Germans will be able to contain an Italy team attuned to exploiting their opponent’s errors.
Granted, every team tries to take advantage of their opponents’ mistakes, but for Italy, it’s the prime directive. Almost everything they do is predicated on being ready to exploit others, and while Cesare Prandelli is slowly trying to change this, Italy’s still a team that sacrifices the ability to generate their own chances for the possibility they can take advantage of others’.
Instead of Mats Hummels losing Robin van Persie for the goal Germany allowed the Dutch, it could be Mario Balotelli on Thursday. Instead of Michael Krohn-Dehli being the beneficiary of poor corner kick marking, it could be Claudio Marchisio. Instead of Georgios Samaras getting ball side of Jerome Boateng to score after the German defense was caught out, it could be Ricardo Montolivo.
And then the Germans would see Italy’s real danger: They can make that one goal hold up.
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