WARSAW, POLAND – Germany take on Italy at Warsaw's National Stadium Thursday night with a berth in the final on the line. The game will be the last staged in Poland during this European Championship , a fitting closing game for a tournament that has seen more than its fair share of spectacle.
Italy enters the match as a beat-up side needing penalty kicks to down England in Donetsk. Both teams looked shattered by the heat and the wear of this tournament in that game, but the Azzurri looked by far the better side. Had Daniele De Rossi sunk his speculative drive in the third minute instead of seeing it carom off the post, we might be telling a different story. But Italy huffed and puffed and yet could not break through an English team that in the end was forced to park the bus, blocking with bodies.
How that plays into this game is uncertain. Italy has a long flight into Warsaw and only three days to rest; the Germans have had five after their shelling of Greece. But if history is a guide - and it usually is in these battles between European powers - Italy cannot be discounted.
Germany have never beaten Italy in a game of this magnitude, either in a World Cup or in a European Championship. In fact, the last time they met in a knockout game, Italy ejected them from the very World Cup they were hosting. Current United States manager, Jurgen Klinsmann, was their boss at the time, and so underwhelming were the Germans that the result was seen as something of a triumph. Current coach, Joachim Low, will not have the same luxury of low expectations: Germany comes into this game as clear favorites to make history by beating the Azzurri.
The biggest question for Die Mannschaft is the fitness of midfield engine Bastian Schweinsteiger, who is currently nursing an ankle injury. He has skipped several days of practice and is racing to be fit for the game. Schweinsteiger does not get the attention or praise that is lavished on Mesut Ozil or Philipp Lahm, which is unfortunate. Ozil provides the flair and Lahm is clearly one of the best attacking backs in the game, but without Schweinsteiger's metronymic precision, Germany would not be nearly as fluent a team.
All eyes will be on Marco Reus and Mario Gomez, a pair who have distinguished themselves with their stylish play.
Reus was a surprise starter against Greece and instantly showed why he is one of the world's most coveted young midfielders. One-time Arsenal target, Mario Goetze, may be better box-to-box, but Reus' slashing runs and vision earned him a goal last time out and endeared him to fans worldwide.
Gomez has shrugged off that dire game against Chelsea in May and leads his team with a trio of goals. He is streaky - and if he is off key can be atrocious - but when he hits the notes right as he has been throughout this tournament, he is simply as good as it gets.
The key men for Italy are their old heads. Andrea Pirlo, Antonio Cassano and Gianluigi Buffon will surely be Italy's catalysts against the Germans, but the game will ultimately fall on mercurial forward Mario Balotelli.
Pirlo turned in a virtuoso performance against England, showing that age cannot stifle his creativity and gift for passing. Allowed loads of space by the English, he was able to play at his own, albeit diminished, pace and sprang Cassano and Balotelli repeatedly in attack. Cassano was off form, missing far too many chances for coach Cesare Prandelli's comfort, but he remains a bulldog up top and will have to be well-marked.
And then there is the captain, goalkeeper Buffon. He may have a peculiar taste in hairstyles - he took the field in Kyiv festooned with bobby pins - but there's no denying his comfort under fire. Few goalkeepers make difficult saves, like that point-blank one-handed parry to deny England's Glen Johnson, look as efficient as he.
Balotelli can be cruelly brilliant in front of the net, and Prandelli was right to place his faith in him against England where he was a harassing force all night. But the City striker is also easily provoked - one wonders how he will fare under the watchful eye of Mats Hummels, one of the tourney's breakout stars.
Italy's problem is that they don't have much else. De Rossi, Alessandro Diamanti and Antonio Nocerino are all so-called impact players - and all of them have struggled to really make an impression against an organized defense. Riccardo Montolivo was very solid on the attack last time out, but he was playing against a side that conceded the kind of time and space Germany will surely not.
On paper, at least, this should be Germany's time. They have to feel they have the firepower and the chance to make a clean run to the finals. All they have to overcome is history - which any student of Europe will tell you is the hardest thing to do.