DURBAN, South Africa — The reigning European champion vs. the runner-up. One of the top scorers at this World Cup vs. No. 2 on the all-time list.
The most dynamic team at this tournament vs. a squad that’s yet to show its full brilliance. A three-time champion vs. a team craving its first title.
Sounds like a great World Cup final.
Too bad it’ll be the semifinals when Germany and Spain face off today at Moses Mabhida Stadium, with many expecting the winner to go on and be crowned world champion four days later.
The Spain-Germany winner will play the Netherlands in the final.
“This would have been a great final, actually,” Germany’s Lukas Podolski said Tuesday.
“We want revenge for 2008. When you are in a final you want to win. We still think about that defeat, and it still hurts. We want to reach the final and we’ll do all we can to achieve that.”
There’s a game in every World Cup that comes a round or two too soon, and Germany-Spain definitely qualifies.
Spain has lost all of two games since November 2006, and it ended a 44-year major title drought when it beat Germany to win the European Championship in 2008. David Villa shares the scoring lead at this World Cup with Wesley Sneijder (five goals), and the Spanish defence hasn’t allowed a goal in the knockout stage.
Germany, meanwhile, made old rivals England and Argentina look downright silly in their knockout round games, routing them by a combined score of 8-1 to reach a third straight World Cup semifinal. Miroslav Klose has regained his old form and, with two goals against Argentina, moved into a tie with Gerd Mueller for second place on the all-time scoring list.
But it’s not just the stats that make this such a tantalizing matchup.
Few teams can keep up when Germany and Spain are at their best, but each is the other’s equal.
“I don’t think there are favourites at this stage,” Spain’s Andres Iniesta said. “What they say about us, we can also say the same thing about them. You can say they are a great team, a team that has players of a very, very high level. For that, it will be a well-deserved semifinal.”
Germany coach Joachim Loew has remade his team since that Euro 2008 loss, bringing in young players such as Mesut Oezil, Sami Khedira and Thomas Mueller who have given Germany the speed and sharpness it lacked.
Despite their youth — with an average age under 25, this is the second-youngest team Germany has ever sent to a World Cup — the Germans are playing with discipline and a seamless chemistry that makes their plays unfold like a symphony.
Their spacing in the midfield is awe-inspiring, their passing so exquisite it almost looks as if the ball is on an invisible wire from one player’s foot to another’s.
As for the defence, it’s simply scary. Whenever Lionel Messi or Carlos Tevez appeared on the verge of doing something in the quarter-final, German defenders swarmed around to force a turnover or a bad shot.
And when Germany is on the counterattack, look out.
Germany will have a somewhat different look without Mueller, who has scored four goals like Klose but is suspended after picking up his second yellow card against Argentina. Then again, the Germans did OK when Klose was suspended, beating Ghana in the group stage.
“It’s probably the most complete team in the World Cup. A team that has changed since the 2008 final, with young and fresh faces,” backup Spain goalkeeper Pepe Reina said. “It’s the most dangerous rival at the moment.”
While Spain’s team has changed little in the last two years, it hasn’t had the same flair in South Africa that it did at Euro 2008. The Spanish were stunned by Switzerland in the group stage, and needed a late goal from Villa to beat Paraguay 1-0 in the quarters after both teams had penalty kicks saved.
Make no mistake, though, Spain is still plenty dangerous.
“I said before that Spain is the team with the most (best) organization, with the best attacking power, with the best firepower,” Loew said. “They’ve been together for a very long time, also. They know each other inside out. As far as Spain’s play is concerned, it hardly makes any mistakes ever.”
Spain also caught a break Tuesday, when Cesc Fabregas was able to work out with the rest of the team. Fabregas had taken a ball off the exact spot where his leg was broken in March during practice Monday night, but tests ruled out any bone injuries and coach Vicente del Bosque said he’s available for the game.
The Spanish acknowledge they have not been at their best in South Africa. But part of that has been because of their defensive-minded opponents, Villa said, and facing Germany should allow Spain get back to its free-flowing, fast-paced offence.
“The Germans have played a brilliant World Cup so far,” Iniesta said. “We’re also at the top of our game, I think. It will be a game between two rivals who enjoy having the ball and I think it will be a beautiful battle.”
Even if it’s not in the final.