Just as in 2008 and 2010, a showdown between Germany and Spain may be the likely outcome of Euro 2012. Spain have beaten them two tournaments running. Could they make it three, or is this year's German team too talented?
Germany and Spain are emerging as favorites at this summer's European Championship. One cannot help but draw comparisons between the two possession-oriented sides dominated by world class midfielders.
As in the 2008 European Championship and the 2010 World Cup, a matchup between the two seems inevitable - and if the two semifinalists meet, we know that it will be in the final. First, Spain must get by Iberian rivals Portugal, while Germany must do something they have never done - defeat Italy in a major tournament.
So how similar are these two sides and what might a potential matchup look like?
World Cup 2010
Analyzing the two sides is best done by examining their last competitive matchup - the semifinal of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. In that game, Spain were 1-0 victors. They went on to win the World Cup by the same score against Holland while Germany defeated Uruguay to claim third.
In that semi, Barcelona midfielder Sergio Busquets effectively shut down Mesut Özil, who had been the key playmaker for Germany in prior matches. The midfield trio of Andres Iniesta, Xavi, and Xabi Alonso overpowered Bastian Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira - the latter of whom was only playing due to the pre-tournament injury of talismanic captain Michael Ballack.
Germany's wingers were drawn inward - where they are not as adept at playing - and Spain's fullbacks were given the freedom to drive down the pitch. The result was that Germany had a muted offense that could not link up from defense to attack.
Carles Puyol scored the winning goal against Germany in 2010
The majority of Spain's good chances in the game came from their wide play and the runs of Iniesta and David Villa in particular, but their actual goal came from a corner kick headed home by center back Carles Puyol. Germany could not answer, and Spain progressed.
The German team relied primarily on counter-attacking play at the 2010 World Cup, and while they still retain that ability, an improved central midfield means they are much better at keeping possession.
Mario Gomez is a well-rounded center forward. His three goals in the group stage demonstrated that not only can he finish with his feet, but he is also an aerial threat. His colleague up front, Miroslav Klose, showed in his first start of the tournament against Greece that his positioning, timing, and finishing can all be effective tools for his team.
Germany's midfield may be their most interesting aspect. Just as in 2010, Özil is the playmaker. His selfless inventiveness is key for the German team. He moves from side to side throughout the game, and usually receives the ball on the wing. This allows the attacking wing players the ability to get into the box and score goals.
After Germany's final group stage match against Denmark, Coach Joachim Löw praised Özil for his play. "He is a great distributor, but at the same time, he does a huge amount of running," Löw told the AFP press agency. "As far as his performances are concerned, there are no ifs or buts about it, he has really sacrificed himself for the team."
Behind Özil, Khedira and Schweinsteiger have improved immensely since 2010. Both take turns going forward, which can confuse opposing midfielders. Against Holland, midfield captain Mark Van Bommel was unable to deal with their movement, and Özil and Schweinsteiger combined to deliver balls into the box that Gomez finished off.
On the wing, Germany has variety. Mainstays Podolski and Müller started every group stage match, but newcomers Marco Reus and André Schürrle replaced them in the quarterfinal against Greece. While the attacking play of Podolski and Müller is more direct, Reus and Schürrle add a creativity that can spark the German attack.
At defense there were questions going into the tournament, but with it nearly over, Mats Hummels and Holger Badstuber have formed a solid defensive partnership. Philip Lahm and Jerome Boateng have retained their starting spots from 2010, though they have swapped sides, with Boateng on the right and Lahm on the left.
The Spanish, unsurprisingly, base their game on retaining possession and waiting for a chance to materialize. Their "tiki taka" style has seen them average more than 60 percent of possession at Euro 2012.
Thus far in the tournament, Spain have played with four at the back, three play-making central midfielders, and an attacking three of Iniesta, David Silva, and either Cesc Fabregas or Fernando Torres. Each of the latter two have scored in this tournament, and it is still not certain who will start the remainder of the competition, though Fabregas is favored.
With Torres in the side, their formation is fairly straight forward. Silva and Iniesta play officially as wingers, but they often spend a good amount of time in the center of the pitch. When Fabregas plays, he does so as a "false 9" - a lone striker who tends to drop into midfield.
The problem when Torres plays is that he can sometimes disappear from the game. He did an excellent job against Ireland, scoring two goals, but his finishing was poor against a superior Croatia side and he was substituted early in the second half. Nonetheless, he does provide that true forward threat Spain lack in the absence of injured front-man David Villa.
Fabregas has been interesting to watch at this tournament. Coach Vicente del Bosque has said that playing him gives Spain more posession and thus creates more chances, but he has his drawbacks. He often does not spend enough time in the box for a man who is playing as Spain's most forward player, and he can sometimes spend too much time on the ball and waste chances.
It is perhaps what Spain are missing that is so notable. Were Villa not injured, he surely would be starting for the Spanish, and his finishing would be a major help. His five goals in the 2010 World Cup were invaluable, and with Torres lacking form, Spain are missing a world class forward that can finish off the many chances their talented team are capable of producing.
In defense, the absence of Puyol through injury means that Spain are not as reliable at the back, nor as much of an aerial threat on set pieces. In 2010, Spain could score one goal, then sit back and know their fantastic defense would see them through. They won every knockout game by a score of 1-0 in that tournament, and have gone eight straight major tournament knockout games without conceding.
Puyol's leadership is also something that is sorely missed, said The Guardian newspaper journalist Jonathon Wilson in an interview with DW. "He is somebody who brings together the Barcelona and Real Madrid factions in the team and that is a potential issue."
A shakier defense at this year's tournament means Spain cannot depend as reliably on the strategy that has won them both the World Cup and Euro 2008. But del Bosque has no intention of changing his team's strategy at this stage. "We should not doubt it," he said in a recent press conference. "That would be the worst thing, for us to become suspicious of everything that has led us to success."
Germany showed in their game against Portugal that they can be timid against sides with great attacking wingers. But they learned their lesson after an uninspiring 1-0 win and had the courage to attack against a talented Netherlands team, scoring twice in the first half.
The difference between Spain and Germany's possession style is that Germany have more variety. Spain can play wide and cross the ball in, but lacking an aerial threat in the box, they often elect not to. Spain's headed goal against France was a bit of a fluke, as Jordi Alba was only open to deliver a cross because France's Mathieu Debuchy slipped.
The Germans can finish in the air consistently, their wingers can score, and even their holding midfielders are goal threats with their charging runs into the box, as Sami Khedira impressively demonstrated with his goal against Greece.
Furthermore, Spain have a tendency to push play centrally, leaving space on the wings. They can struggle with crosses into the box, and two of Croatia's best chances came from those types of plays. Germany may be able to take advantage of that space, just as they did against Portugal and Greece.
The Germans will still have difficulty getting around a very talented Spain squad, though. Spain would likely still control the majority of possession. Their central midfielders, simply put, are superior.
They have even improved during the tournament. Silva tries harder to stretch play wide from the start, and the natural winger Jesus Navas has been effective off the bench against tired opposing legs.
In fact, Spain have been so good over the last four years that virtually every team they play adapts their style to compensate. This allows the Spanish to play their own way and dominate the game.
The last two competitive meetings against Germany ended 1-0 to the Spanish. There is a good chance a European Championship Final rematch would also be low-scoring, but in 2012, the Spanish are facing arguably a much better Germany team than they have ever seen before.
Author: David Raish
Editor: Mark Hallam