The standout quarter-final encounter of Euro 2016 takes place in Bordeaux as world champions Germany aim to reach the last four for the sixth major tournament in succession, although opponents Italy have thwarted them on many occasions in the past.
It was the Italians who extinguished Germany’s hopes of winning the World Cup on home soil in 2006, winning a thrilling match 2-0 after extra time, and more recently it was Mario Balotelli who proved the difference in the semi-finals of Euro 2012; so although they are the underdogs, Italy may have a slight psychological advantage coming into this one.
Both sides come into this one with a tremendous defensive record over the course of the competition, with Germany yet to concede a goal and showing signs of really coming on strong right throughout the team.
As for Italy, the only time they have been breached was against the Republic of Ireland in a game which meant little to them with top spot in Group E already assured. Boss Antonio Conte had also made wholesale changes to his starting line-up.
Those who were rested for that one certainly returned in style, as they produced a magnificent all-round display to eliminate holders Spain. It was an unexpected result, and one which served to highlight Conte’s coaching ability and technical awareness.
Graziano Pelle was a crucial figure in attack and was eventually rewarded with a goal, but it was the back three of Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini who provided the solidity for their teammates to execute Conte’s tactical masterclass.
The trio have an almost telepathic understanding having played together for so long, and will not be intimidated by coming up against the group of stars that Germany possess. Conte will have a plan, but this will be an ever greater test for Italy, who will emerge from these championships with credit whatever happens here.
During the group stage it was clear that Germany were just going through the gears, playing within themselves until the knockout stages began. Last time out they showed their true colours, making a fast start to put opponents Slovakia firmly on the back-foot, and going on to get a vital second goal just before half-time.
It was a match which strengthened the merits of playing Mario Gomez as an orthodox striker, rather than merely fielding the likes of Thomas Muller or Mario Gotze to act as the furthest player forward, a role did not cater to the attributes of either player. With Gomez, Germany have a focal point and that will make things a little harder for Italy’s back three.
The opening goal against Slovakia was scored in spectacular fashion by central defender Jerome Boateng, who has made a very strong case towards being cited as the player of the tournament so far. He has made some massive contributions in preventing goals and starting attacks for his side, and is now just as important a component in the Germany side as anybody else.
This has the makings of a captivating tactical battle. Germany have the better players, but Italy have shown themselves to be functioning as an exceptional collective unit. There may be little to separate the sides at the Matmut Atlantique.