Germany vs Italy: Heavyweights collide at Euro 2016
BORDEAUX, FRANCE >> They're Europe's most successful soccer nations. They're arguably the form teams at this European Championship. They're the two countries that almost always rise to the occasion in major tournaments.
Germany vs. Italy: It's a game fit for a final.
Except one of them won't even get past the quarterfinal stage at Euro 2016.
The continental heavyweights — owners of eight World Cups and four European Championships between them — collide in Bordeaux on Saturday in a match that stands out for many reasons.
Firstly, there's the skewed history of their meetings in major tournaments. Germany and Italy have played each other eight times at the highest level and, bizarrely, the Germans haven't recorded a single victory.
"We still have a score to settle with the Italians," Germany goalkeeping coach Andreas Koepke said.
Then there's the nations' current standing in soccer. Germany came into Euro 2016 as the world champion and, to many people, the tournament favorite. Italy arrived with what many back home were saying was the worst team in years.
The Germans have largely lived up to their billing, conceding no goals in four matches and hitting their stride with a 3-0 win over Slovakia in the round of 16. The Italians have silenced the critics with arguably the best two displays of any team so far, 2-0 wins over highly fancied rivals Belgium (in the group stage) and then Spain (in the round of 16).
"I'm not singing with the choir that wrote us off (after a 0-0) against Poland and is now branding us absolute favorites after the win over Slovakia," Germany coach Joachim Loew.
"They're not the Italians that we normally know," Loew added. "They're not only focused on defense but they play very, very well going forward. So ... I believe we'll have a very interesting, highly charged game on Saturday."
While Italy is battle-hardened after a tougher-than-average group stage and then a match against defending champion Spain, there's a sense that Euro 2016 really starts here for Germany.
Loew's side strolled through its group and Slovakia didn't prove to be a real test.
The Italians certainly will be.
Loew had his biggest disappointment as Germany coach when his team lost 2-1 to Italy in the Euro 2012 semifinals. He was assistant manager to Juergen Klinsmann when Italy beat Germany in extra time in the semifinals of the 2006 World Cup that Germany hosted.
Germany's barren run against the Azzurri in major tournaments started with a 0-0 draw at the 1962 World Cup.
"You don't prepare a game saying we won the one before, we'll win the next one," Italy midfielder Alessandro Florenzi said. "We went to work immediately after Spain, we watched the video and tried to find weaknesses in a team that doesn't have many.
"The facts speak for themselves, they're world champions, they've won so many matches, that's what gives them confidence."
Italy's chances of continuing its impressive streak in this fixture are being undermined by a midfield crisis. Already without Claudio Marchisio, Marco Verratti and Riccardo Montolivo because of pre-tournament injuries, Italy coach Antonio Conte is without the suspended Thiago Motta and Antonio Candreva (groin), while Daniele De Rossi (thigh) is a doubt.
As for Germany, left back Jonas Hector has had a cold this week but is expected to be OK for Saturday.
This could be Conte's last game in charge of Italy before he takes over as manager of Chelsea in the English Premier League. He has given tactical masterclasses against Belgium and Spain, and another might be needed against a Germany side that has a point to prove.
"We have no Italy-trauma," Loew said
The world is just about to find out.
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