Having arrived in France being derided as the least talented Italian squad to go to a major tournament in 50 years, Italy now finds itself in the quarterfinals and with a real shot of taking home the trophy. After all, Italy will face a country it has never lost to in a competitive fixture.
Italy’s record against Germany is one of the most remarkable in international soccer. As winners of four World Cups and three European Championships, Germany is not a country used to losing regularly against any opponent. Italy, though, has beaten its European rival in all eight of their meetings in major tournaments, including several that still rest uncomfortably on Germany’s national consciousness.
Included among those is the 1982 World Cup final, in which Italy triumphed 3-1. And there were also two semifinals, in 1970 and, even more painfully for Germany, in 2006, when the Germans were beaten on home soil in extra time.
Most recently on a major stage, the two most successful European sides faced off in the semifinals of the last European Championship. Germany was favorite to prevail after finishing runner-up four years earlier and reaching the semifinals of the 2010 World Cup. But two goals from Mario Balotelli continued Italy’s dominance of the fixture.
Current coach Joachim Low should remember that 2012 meeting all too well. It was in that game that he opted to bring Toni Kroos into the side with the responsibility of keeping Italy playmaker Andrea Pirlo quiet. Needless to say the move failed and Low was widely criticized for his decision. At that point, many wondered whether Low, who had moved up from the assistant role to replace Jurgen Klinsmann following the 2006 World Cup, was the right man to deliver Germany a long-awaited trophy.
Those critics were silenced when he guided his country to 2014 World Cup glory in Brazil. But as he looks to make Germany just the third team in history to follow up World Cup success with winning the Euros, he must now overcome both his and his country’s history.
“We have never beaten them in a tournament but we have no Italy trauma,” Low, who guided Germany to a 4-1 friendly win over Italy in March, insisted after Germany brushed aside Slovakia in the round of 16. “I do not rate the past too much. They are now a different team. That's all cold coffee. A fresh espresso is better and I hope it tastes better on Saturday.”
Even ignoring history, though, Italy now looks a much tougher prospect than when Euro 2016 got underway. Indeed, in its very first game, Italy signaled that, while it may not possess anything like the talent of previous generations, it is still a force to be reckoned with.
A 2-0 victory over a Belgium team featuring far greater individual talent highlighted not only the sturdy defense of Juventus stalwarts Gianluigi Buffon, Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Barzagli and the superb Leonardo Bonucci, but the nous of its coach. In a tournament when some of the coaching has left a lot to be desired, Antonio Conte has shown why he has already been snapped up to take charge of one of the world’s top clubs, Chelsea, for next season.
Against two-time defending champion Span in the Round of 16, he enhanced his reputation yet further. Pressing high and denying Spain the ability to play out of the back, Conte also had forward Graziano Pellè man-marking the player responsible for so much of Spain’s passing rhythm, Sergio Busquets. Italy were fully deserving of its 2-0 victory.
It now remains to be seen what the Euro 2016’s outstanding coach has up his sleeve for the world champion and current joint favorites to land the trophy.
Prediction: This has all the ingredients to be the game of the tournament, mainly due the matchup's many intricacies. Germany, of course, has the greater talent, but Italy has a coach who has already shown he can make up for that disparity with an expertly designed and executed game plan. With Germany’s strength also residing in gifted, passing midfielders, Conte could choose to employ a similar strategy to the one that was so effective against Spain. However, Germany has the ability to be more flexible, and, in Mario Gomez, it has a physical presence up front and one who should be particularly eager to impress against Italy after a disappointing spell at Fiorentina. It could well go to extra time and even penalties, but Germany may just prevail to end its long hoodoo.
Predicted score: Germany 2-1 Italy
Germany win: 5/4
Italy win: 3/1