The best isn’t always saved for last. Germany and Italy, the two hottest teams at these Euros, would make for a mouthwatering final in Paris on July 10. But, thanks to the loaded bottom half of the bracket, the two heavyweights will collide in this tournament’s most highly anticipated quarterfinal in Bordeaux Saturday.
Between them, Germany and Italy have won four European Championships and eight World Cups. They’ve claimed as many major tournaments since the 1990 World Cup as England have won knockout stage matches. Surely this must be a tossup then, no?
Actually, if the head-to-head track record means anything, we might as well be pitting the Harlem Globetrotters against the Washington Generals. Germany has yet to score a major victory over Italy in eight attempts, its futility starting with a 0-0 draw against the Azzurri in the 1962 World Cup. Most recently, Italy knocked Germany out of the Euro 2012 semifinals, the same stage it eliminated them in the 2006 World Cup.
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“We have never beaten them in a tournament but we have no Italy trauma,” Germany Coach Joechim Low said. “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.”
Indeed, Low shouldn’t be preoccupied with past results given his team’s current form. The defending world champs have yet to concede a goal in this tournament, their latest performance yielding a clinical 3-0 rout over Slovakia last Sunday. Germany has averaged 69 percent possession over its first four games, the highest ratio so far at Euro 2016.
But Saturday’s showdown (3 p.m. Eastern, ESPN2) features an Italian side looking equally formidable. Lacking big names or eye-popping talent, Italy exhibits that rare quality of playing up to its competition, shutting out second-ranked Belgium and defending champion Spain while losing a meaningless group-stage game against inferior Ireland.
“This national side is short on great talent, so we have to come together as a team,” Italian defender Leonardo Bonucci said. “We have to have a playing style, and Conte is really the master in this area.”
Italy Coach Antonio Conte has injected an irrepressible passion into a cohesive squad that thrives on cunning and willpower. Rather than simply letting his motley charges run wild, Conte employs the scrupulous approach of a club coach, tailoring each game plan to the tendencies of the opposition. Italy nullified Spain’s tiki-taka build-up play by pressing high and disrupting passing lanes, then charging forward in numbers.
“I have always said since I took over the Italian national side that the only route forward that we can have to try to achieve some semblance of success is to try to be a club,” Conte said. “We cannot allow ourselves to simply be a group of players. There’s no point in hiding the fact that it’s not the rosiest period for Italy in terms of footballing talent, and so we need to be a team. I have tried to wage a battle over the last two years to make people realize this.”
On Saturday Conte must deal with an unpredictable German squad that can thrive in a variety of styles and lineups. Like his Italian counterpart, Low is a tactically astute coach who can make the kind of in-game adjustments that a sleepy Vicente Del Bosque seemed incapable of making for Spain last week. Whether that means he’ll stick with the 4-2-3-1 formation Germany has utilized so far in this tournament or mirror the Italians’ 3-5-2 setup — as they did in a 4-1 win over Italy in a March friendly — remains to be seen.
Neither starting goalkeeper has surrendered a goal so far. Neither team looks poised for defeat. Something’s gotta give at the Nouveau Stade de Bordeaux on Saturday.