Germany versus Italy in Bordeaux this Saturday is more than a normal duel in the quarterfinal of Euro 2016.
It is the merciless shoot-out of the probably the two best teams at the most important European tournament. The special rivalry between the two will turn the game into a battle of nerves and emotions.
And it is the most tricky challenge German head-coach Joachim Loew can think of. After winning the 2014 World Cup, the 56-year old is now either on the way to becoming Germany’s biggest coaching-legend or a man that, though good, won’t quite go down in history as a truly outstanding coach.
As said, Loew won the World Cup with a 1-0 victory in the final against Argentina but Italy still is a special chapter in his coaching life. Like an old wound that hurts when bad weather is approaching. At Euro 2012 Loew aligned his semifinal team on Italy’s tactics and got dumped out of the competition. The headlines were full of scorn and derision. “Gambled away” newspapers wrote and Loew was the man to blame.
Four years later and things have changed. World Cup coach Loew seems to be having fun playing a part in the pre-game psychological warfare. The fact that Germany has never won a game at a major tournament against Italy is something Loew calls “old hat”. At the same time Loew knows what went wrong and, maybe more important, he and his team have developed. Today Loew rarely talks about Italy’s fearsome reputation as the best tactical side and a bunch of smooth operators. This time Loew knows full well, to get over what is called “the Italy trauma” by German media, “we have to concentrate on our strengths.”
Confidence and patience will be the key for Loew and his squad on their way to the final of Euro 2016 in the Stade de France on July 10. “From what we have seen so far, it is the duel of the two best teams at Euro 2016,” Loew said knowing his team will have to crack the hardest nut of all.
As everyone back home in Germany is talking about the painful defeat at Euro 2012, Loew has shut all doors. Thursday’s training sessions took place with nobody watching on. On top: The Germans had their last training session before the Italy-game in their team-head-quarters in Evian on the banks of Lake Geneva instead of practicing in Bordeaux.
Loew’s strategy is part of the psychological warfare. His intention is to deliver no information to the opponents. Until shortly before kick-off, he will keep his tactical strategy a close secret. The Italians will be kept guessing about Germany’s line-up with either a three-man defense as it was when Germany won a friendly 4-1 in March 2016. And they will have to consider finding answers to a German backrow of four. Both will affect Germany’s system and the players Loew will choose.
Looking at Germany’s performance in the last two games, Loew seems to have found his favourite starting eleven such as Manuel Neuer – Joshua Kimmich, Jerome Boateng, Mats Hummels (all Bayern Munich), Jonas Hector (1. FC Cologne) – Sami Khedira (Juventus Turin), Toni Kroos (Real Madrid) – Julian Draxler (VfL Wolfsburg), Mesut Ozil (Arsenal), Thomas Mueller (Bayern Munich) – Mario Gomez (Besiktas Istanbul). A back-row of three (Hummels, Boateng, Benedikt Hoewedes) would mean an additional midfielder. The extra man could be Bastian Schweinsteiger, who would do the defensive job together with Khedira while Kroos joins the more offensive section up front. Then the German line-up could be Neuer – Hoewedes, Boateng, Hummels – Schweinsteiger, Khedira – Kroos – Draxler, Ozil, Mueller – Gomez.
No matter how Loew decides, his decision will be made to take place in a mood of confidence that both he and his players have developed and improved.
The 2016 Toni Kroos is far from the inexperienced youngster who failed to stop Italy’s midfielder Andrea Pirlo in the 2012 semifinal. Kroos today is Germany’s passing machine and responsible for the game’s pulse. “He is the one responsible for our game’s symmetry,” Loew says. Kroos seems to be just the right answer to Italy’s emotional style as the 26-year old stands for pragmatism and structure. “We need creativity and guts to beat Italy,” Loew said.
For the team’s general manager, Oliver Bierhoff, who scored the winning goal in 1996 when Germany won its last European Championship, things are clear: “We have to find the balance between defense and offense more than in any other game”. The team will have to stop Italy’s passionate forwards Graziano Pelle, Eder and Emanuele Giaccherini and at the same time score goals against one of the best defenses in world football.
In that respect the team of Loew will definitely have to improve. While Italy needed 36 chances to score five goals, it took 80 chances for the Germans to score six goals. “We are confident, but know, we have to be fully concentrated and passionate. The greater will is going to be the key to success,” defender Mats Hummels said.