I wrote the last time that I had been impressed by both Germany and Portugal and that I expected both teams to reach the semifinals and also possibly progress to the final.
Nothing has changed for me here, but often in the course of a tournament, teams overcome their problems and become stronger.
That's why I see Spain, against Portugal, and Italy, facing Germany, as certainly being in a position to beat my personal favourites in the semis.
In the first semi, what Spain have in their favour is the fact that they can win games without playing at their best as they did in the group stage against Croatia, and in the quarterfinal against France.Previously, they had never beaten France in a major tournament. This time they did not allow the French, who are again squabbling among themselves, anywhere near their goal and won comfortably with two goals from Real Madrid’s Xabi Alonso.
I had to smile on hearing former Bayern Munich player Mehmet Scholl say on German television, ‘Against the Spanish, every opponent feels like a referee. You run the whole time alongside the ball but never get it. And then when you do get the ball you look up and see that the goal is 70 metres away.’
La liga battle royale
A more succinct summing up of the Spanish short-passing game of possession would be hard to find. And it could yet come to a Spanish defeat, for three Real Madrid players are playing for Portugal and are carrying the victory gene of the Spanish champions.
I am referring to left-back Fabio Coentrao, centre-back Pepe, a hard-tackling player who is fired up to the last minute, as well as Cristiano Ronaldo.
The Real players in the Spanish side, goalkeeper Iker Casillas, Alvaro Arbeloa, Sergio Ramos and Xabi Alonso, know Pepe all too well and will have the greatest of respect for him, as they do for Ronaldo because they know he is not only vain but a footballer who works on his own game in exemplary fashion.
I don’t think there will be many goals in this first semifinal because of the great rivalry between the two Iberian neighbours, the larger Spain and the smaller Portugal, who for once want to be the bigger of the two.
Portugal have the advantage of being able to play with three strikers, Ronaldo, Nani and Helder Postiga, although the latter is an injury doubt and could be replaced by Hugo Almeida. Spain seem to have only Fernan-do Torres, if he plays at all. Coach Vicente del Bosque could play without an all-out striker, altho-ugh there is plenty of danger from midfield even in a 4-6-0 system.
The German players and even the German fans had hoped England would be the semifinal opponents because they have nearly always beaten England in major tournaments.
Settling old scores
Against Italy on the other hand, Germany have a complex, having never beaten them in a major tournament. Germany still recall the 2-0 extra-time defeat to Italy in the semifinals of the 2006 World Cup.
What Italy have going for them is a new playing style under coach Cesare Prandelli, who wants his side, untypically for Italy, playing attacking football. The strike duo of Mario Balotelli and Antonio Cassano is at the moment not dangerous enough in front of goal. Italy still rely on goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon. I have seldom seen such a commanding ‘keeper.
Much depends on playmaker Andrea Pirlo. The way he chipped the ball over England goalkeeper Joe Hart in the penalty shootout will go down in Euro history. After he failed to play at his best due to injury at the 2010 World Cup, he is now bang on form at the age of 33.
But we should not forget that Italy have many players around 30, and Germany around 23 — one of the oldest teams playing against the youngest.
Germany do not need to fear any team. Coach Joachim Loew demonstrated in the 4-2 defeat of Greece that he could exchange attacking players Mario Gomez, Thomas Mueller and Lukas Podolski for Miroslav Klose, Marco Reus and Andre Schuerrle without much ado. The fast and skilful Reus in particular, who is moving from Borussia Moenchengladbach to champions Borussia Dortmund, has a bright future.
Loew is yet again spoiled for choice when it comes to deciding his side. I am not necessarily one for making big team changes, but so far everything Loew has done has seemed to work.
If I say Germany will reach the final it is not because I am German, but because I am convinced of the team’s qualities. There remain only some lingering doubts, simply because the opponents are Italy.
In Munich, there will be big celebrations come what may. The city of my birth and where I enjoyed the best of my playing days is also known as Italy’s northernmost city. If Germans aren’t able to celebrate then the streets will be full of triumphant Italians.
The writer was Germany’s World Cup winning captain & coach