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Semi Final Preview: Spain vs Germany

In Football on July 7, 2010 at 4:53 pm

Spain

How they got here

The loss to Switzerland brought back all the old Spanish doubts

With a lot more difficulty than expected. Nobody expected them to lose their first game to Switzerland. That 1-0 loss was the only time the Swiss managed to get themselves on the scoresheet, as their desperately negative tactics yielded just one more point against Honduras and Chile.

The pre-tournament favourites recovered well from that defeat, with a comfortable 2-0 win over Honduras and a 2-1 victory over the dangerous Chileans, but their reward was another meeting with a well-drilled, defensive outfit, Portugal.

Despite some hairy moments in that one which raised more doubts over the form of legendary goalkeeper Iker Casillas, David Villa’s fourth goal of the World Cup was enough to see them through. His fifth was all they could muster in an unexpectedly tense 1-0 win over Paraguay. They won’t care how they got to this stage though, the point is that they are here.

Final prospects

They go into this one as underdogs, which would have been unthinkable three weeks ago. The fickle nature of football coverage dictates that the Germans are now the form team, and will be expected to continue their free-scoring ways.

It won’t be that simple.

First of all, in a bizarre way, the shackles are now off Vicente del Bosque’s men. Always the nearly men of World football, they had come into many World Cups before this one as the heavily fancied dark horses, and had always come a cropper early. For a nation with such a rich footballing tradition and so many star players over the years, they had always flattered to deceive.

The European Championship win from two years ago was supposed to have changed that. But in their performance in the opener, and the players’ response (Gerard Pique called their status as favourites ‘stupid’), they showed the demons are still present and correct. An ignominious exit at the group stages beckoned.

They escaped that fate, but then faced a major test in the steel-clad Portuguese defence, who also contained the small matter of Cristiano Ronaldo up front. They passed that test, albeit far from convincingly, and got what looked like a dream draw against Paraguay.

Again though, this may well have worked against them. A quarter final appearance would not have done these players justice, and an exit to Paraguay would have been embarrassing. When the South Americans came

David Villa celebrates his winner against Paraguay

out battling like their lives depended on the result, you could see the Spniards tightening up. Seeing beautiful footballers like Iniesta, Xavi and Xabi Alonso miscontrolling simple passes, overhitting through balls and generally displaying nerves, you could almost see the doubts surfacing.

But they fought on. Now, in only the country’s second ever semi final appearance, as underdogs, the weight may finally be partially lifted. An exit to this German side, at this stage, would be disappointing, but not unexpected. The players can finally forget about the expectations and just play what’s in front of them. If they can produce their best form, finally, then they can beat the Germans, and be just one final step from their holy grail.

They have the players, and the system, to beat Germany. We all know just what they do. They monopolise possession, letting the ball do the work as they wear out their opponents. Any chink in the armour will be ruthlessly exploited by the creativity of Iniesta and Xavi, and the finishing of Villa and Torres.

They come into this with no suspensions, having only picked up three bookings so far. That in itself is an indication of how they play. You can’t get booked for passing the ball to death. So with no suspensions, Torres is the only doubt. His form has been poor so far this tournament, and Navas, Fabregas and Llorente have all made more significant contributions. I expect del Bosque, who is a big fan, to persist with the Liverpool man, but if he doesn’t, then he has excellent options.

Navas, to my mind, may be the best in this situation. German left-back Jerome Boateng has shown some weaknesses in his young career so far, and if they can isolate Navas against him it could spell trouble for the Germans. The winger also provides his side with some much-needed width, as their methodical, narrow attacks can be shut down by a side with the necessary skill and concentration.

Fabregas is a fantastic player, but provides no extra width. Having him in the middle just means they have a fifth passing central midfielder, which may be little advantage. Finally, Llorente may well make an appearance to trouble the potential weakness in the German centre. Per Mertesacker may be a man mountain, but it is possible to bully him, and that’s what Llorente brings. If he could occupy the central defenders, space would open up, as we saw against Portugal.

The key players for Spain will be Villa, for obvious reasons, and Iniesta, who looks to be recovering some of his devastating form. At the other end of the pitch, if Busquets can keep a close eye on the tiring Ozil, Germany may struggle to provide Miroslav Klose with the ammunition he needs.


Germany

How they got here

This German side, stupidly written off by many who underestimated the strength of the Bundesliga, has been the revelation of the World Cup so far. Bastian Schweinsteiger has been my player of the tournament, while Mesut Ozil has sparkled and Miroslav Klose has just kept on finding the net.

After spanking the Aussies 4-0 in their opening match, the World at large was forced to sit up and take notice. What followed was a battling, but unsuccessful performance in a 1-0 loss to Serbia, and many figured they were a flash in the pan. In danger of exiting at the group stages, this scarily young side rallied to down a far better than expected Ghanaian team, and booked a date with England in the second round.

It’s a measure of how little actual research some of the opinion-makers on the BBC, ITV and RTE actually do that England were made favourites ahead of that one. They were beaten off the park so badly in a 4-1 loss that even the tabloid reaction to Frank Lampard’s ‘goal’ was fairly muted.

They faced Diego Maradona’s Argentina in the quarter final, and were expected to go down fighting. Instead, they turned in an even better performance in a stunning 4-0 win.

Suddenly, people belatedly realised – these guys are for real. Players like Ozil and Thomas Mueller went from being virtual unknowns to the toast of the football world, and the revolution is complete as they are now almost universally expected to roast the stuttering Spanish.

Final prospects

In truth, though they have been hugely impressive, they will be tested by a far better team than they have yet faced later tonight. Neither England or Argentina were able to get a grip of the midfield in their knockout contests, Argentina through a lack of skill, and England a lack of will.

Tearing through an English side that defended like a Sunday league team and hoofed the ball long to the giant Per Mertesacker is one thing. So is controlling a midfield populated by the spoiling Javier Mascherano and lightweight Maxi Rodriguez. Trying to shut down Spain is an entirely different matter.

Bastian Schweinsteiger has been my player of the tournament so far, and he is absolutely key to German hopes. He makes them tick, with or without the ball. The sight of him striding through the centre, picking passes and driving his side forward has been a common one so far this World Cup. Beyond that though, do they have the tools they need?

Early goals have been key to German hopes

This will be a big test of Sami Khedira. Impressive so far, the youngster will now have to shadow the very best. It’s a big step up. If he and Schweinsteiger can’t get a hold of their opponents there, they could be in trouble. Their defense has been performing well so far, but there were wobbles against England. Mertesacker is a serious talent, but he’s not the finished article yet, while Arne Friedrich has been pulling up mountains, relative to the expectations people had of him. As already mentioned, Jerome Boateng could struggle defensively.

They did manage to shut down Leo Messi and co against Argentina, but the threat will be more sustained against Spain, and build from deeper. In short, it’s a different examination.

At the other end of the pitch, the loss of the four-goal Thomas Muller will be keenly felt. Add to that the fact that their other main creator, Mesut Ozil, has been suffering from fatigue, and you could find that the Germans will struggle to create. Lukas Podolski has done well, but is a very hit or miss player, and Klose is at his best haunting the six yard box, not carving open defences.

The main point where the Germans should focus is down the flanks. Thus far, they have excelled at lightning break-aways, with their youngsters galloping at a retreating and understaffed defence. Sergio Ramos is often MIA from his right back position, and if they are able to snap at the heels of the Spanish pass-masters and force the ball back, there could be openings. Similarly, should they manage to get their noses in front from an early set-piece, as they have in their last two games, they are a brilliant counter-attacking team.

Spain have yet to truly perform in the tournament, while the Germans have been the outstanding team. This German side is very young though, and if they were to advance to the final without some kind of physical suffering, then they should patent their fitness drills.

The suspicion remains that Spain will click, and I think this is the game where they will do so. They have their own weaknesses to worry about however, and Germany are well-placed to take advantage. I predict Spain to take a belter of a game, but not with any great confidence.

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