Two years ago, when Germany and Spain met in the final of Euro 2008, nobody expected Germany to win. That was a magnificent Spain side that played tremendous possession football and, by beating Italy in the quarterfinal, had overcome at least some of its mental demons. Spain beat the Germans 1-0, but it was one of the most emphatic 1-0 wins you're likely to see. Germany was made to look sluggish and lumbering, chasing haplessly as Spain's five-man midfield rotated the ball at a bewildering, almost cruel, pace.
Spain has lost just twice since then, and yet going into Wednesday's World Cup semifinal, it is Germany that looks like the in-form team. Spain has produced its best passing football only in patches, while Germany has been devastating on the counterattack, destroying both Argentina and England. The question it has yet to answer, though, is what it does if it doesn't score the first goal, something it was gifted by both its last two opponents.
It is not to demean the Germans' achievements in this tournament to say their greatest ability is the way they take advantages of opponents' errors. To suggest, as some have done, that this is somehow a fresh-faced return to the Total Footballing West Germany of the early 1970s, though, is misguided.
The members of the front four have been clinical when given the opportunity to counterattack, their movement intelligent and their passing quick and precise, presumably the work of regular drills on the training field.
Whether that is enough to beat the European champion is another matter. Spain presents Germany with the sort of threat it hasn't yet faced; indeed, the sort of threat no other side in the world could pose. Germany has shown possession stats don't worry it, having had less of the ball against both Argentina and England, but whether it can cope with having only around 40 percent of possession, as is likely against Spain, is another matter. England's principle mode of attack is the cross, and
The issue, really, is less with Germany than Spain. If the Spanish are at their most fluent, it is hard to see how Germany can live with that, but Spain has not been at its most fluent in this tournament. The use of two central strikers not only robs Spain of a man in midfield -- and thus perhaps makes players a little tentative about pushing forward -- but also seems to unbalance the side.
There are also reasons specific to the Germany game why the five-man midfield with which Spain finished against Paraguay looks preferable. With two center forwards and four midfielders who prefer central roles, the onus is on the fullbacks to provide width. If the fullbacks advance, though, that gives Podolski and
The question then is who that front five should be. If Torres is omitted, that would appear to leave two options.
Although the first option gives more defensive security and may help cut out Schweinsteiger's bursts, the midfield-three alternative has the advantage of pressing players high up against the German fullbacks. That is useful on Spain's left, because it may prevent
Whatever the personnel, though, this will be a fascinating clash of styles, between the possession and passing of Spain and the organization and counterattacking of Germany, between proactive and reactive football.