Published June 27, 2012
DONETSK, Ukraine (AP) – Cesare Prandelli remembers where he was when Italy beat Germany 4-3 in the semifinal of the World Cup in 1970. How can anyone forget the Partita del Secolo or "Game of the Century?"
"For us kids who were 14 at the time, it was the game," he recalled. "I watched it at home on TV with my father and it was the greatest emotion I'd got from football."
That encounter at Mexico City's Aztec stadium remains iconic for so many reasons. The great Franz Beckenbauer playing with a sling after dislocating his shoulder. Then of course there was the incredible scoreline: Roberto Boninsegna-Karl-Heinz Schellinger-Gerd Müller-Tarcisio Burgnich-Gigi Riva-Gerd
Müller-Gianni Rivera all scored in that order. It was a thriller.
A precis of what happened is enough to give a sense of the occasion. Italy were 1-0 up but conceded an equalizer in the last minute. Germany then went ahead 2-1 in extra-time but Italy managed to get back on level terms and restore their lead at 3-2. Digging deep within themselves, Germany found another equalizer and it was 3-3. Yet, Italy replied almost immediately and ended victorious.
Later generations in Italy have had their own "where were you when we beat Germany?" moments to speak of. After all, they have provided the nation's football history with some of its finest chapters. Leaf through it and after 1970, there's the 1982 World Cup final, another triumph for Italy, this time 3-1, with the memory of Marco Tardelli's splendid goal and his overwrought celebration.
Then, more recently, there was the 2006 World Cup semifinal won in extra time again by Italy. Fabio Grosso did his best Tardelli impression after opening the scoring then Alessandro Del Piero made sure of the result, finishing off a wonderful counter-attack. To make matters worse, it happened on German soil at the tournament they hosted. The "summer fairy tale," as they called it, was over.
"We still have that game in our heads," admits Germany captain Philipp Lahm. Along with several of his teammates, he would have preferred to meet England in the Euro 2012 semifinal.
"Italy are better than England," Lahm added. "They're more cunning, better prepared tactically, more difficult to beat. But with four wins in a row, we have shown that it's difficult to stop us."
Italy have never lost to Germany in a major tournament. In addition to that, their record in semifinals is formidable. Taking all of their appearances at this stage of the World Cup and European Championship into account, they have played 10, won eight and lost only twice. It's a source of confidence, for sure, but how much should be read into it?
When reminded of it at Tuesday's press conference, coach Joachim Löw said: "So what? This isn't an issue for our young players." He has a point. Only Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Lukas Podolski and Miroslav Klose remain from the team that suffered the heartbreaking defeat to Italy six years ago. The new breed is a fearless bunch.
"They are very strong, superbly organized...but if we play to our full potential we will come out winners," Mesut Özil claimed. "We are the team to beat," boasted teammate Marco Reus.
He is not wrong. Germany have won 15 competitive matches in a row. The style and panache with which they have gone about putting that streak together has commanded respect. Regardless of how well Italy played against England, no one is under any illusion whatsoever as to whom the favorite is ahead of Thursday's game in Warsaw.
Reasons for Italy to be apprehensive start first and foremost with their glaring inability to make the most of the goalscoring opportunities they create. So far, they have had 87 shots at Euro 2012, 50 of which have been on target. On both counts, that's comfortably more than any other team. And yet, their
conversion rate stands at just 4.6%, the worst of those left in the competition.
Another issue raised has been how Germany have benefited from two extra rest days. "It's a big difference at this moment in time and there's little we can do about it," Prandelli said. "The handicap from a physical fitness point of view can't be made up. Playing a semifinal with a similar disparity is not synonymous with entertainment. In the future UEFA should think carefully about this schedule problem."
Prandelli is justified in feeling aggrieved. There have only been two previous matches where a team has enjoyed two more rest days than their opponents and those were the semifinals of Euro 2004. On that occasion the sides that enjoyed more recovery time, Portugal and Greece, beat those who had had less, Holland and the Czech Republic.
And yet, while disadvantaged, Italy are not fixating on it.
"We can play a great game," Prandelli insisted. "They are a very strong team. They have a tried and tested system and more time to recover, but unbeatable teams don't exist. We'll study everything and try to hit their few weak points. Of course we'll try to make the game. We won't defend in our penalty area. I prefer to concede a goal on the counter-attack than suffer in defense for 90 minutes."
Italy did well when they last met Germany in a friendly back in February 2011. They showed character by rallying to come back from behind and had two clear penalties denied in a 1-1 draw in Dortmund.
While there were many changes by both teams in the second half and a bad pitch that slowed things down a bit, Italy weren't what Germany expected and were able to surprise them with their positive approach.
Much encouragement can be drawn from that encounter even if a lot of the personnel have changed. Still, it will be interesting to discover what either side learned from that experience. At the time, Prandelli said, "we're not quite at their level yet but we've closed the gap."
So to what extent then are Italy any nearer today? We'll find the answer to that out on Thursday. As for Germany, they will no doubt be hoping that newspaper Bild doesn't have cause to ask the same question they did of Löw after that friendly 18 months ago.
"Jogi, why can't we beat the Italians?"