What was 16 teams just three weeks ago has now been whittled down to a final two, Spain and Germany, who face off in Sunday's final for the trophy. The two are almost polar opposites of European football, with Germany constantly performing to or even beyond their ability at times to always pull through and be there or thereabouts in major tournaments while the Spanish, despite being technically talented, regularly flounder tactically, get overpowered and drop their heads far too easily.
Each team's tournament history tells a story. Germany have won three World Cups and three European Championships, having reached at least the semi-finals a staggering 18 times in total, with their main period of domination running through the 1970s and 80s. Spain, however, have reached the last four just four times - including this year - with their best finish in a World Cup being fourth place in 1950 and them having won the second ever Euro on home soil in 1964 and being losing finalists 20 years later.
So this is just their third final - all of them in Euros - and what will inspire them is the opportunity to emulate the French team that beat them 2-0 in the Euro 84 final and win the tournament having made a clean sweep of their group, an incredibly rare feat.
Germany have the edge on Spain in head-to-head meetings in the past, having won eight, drawn five and lost six. There is little between them, but in major tournaments, unsurprisingly, Germany's superiority is a little more significant. Spain gained a solitary victory over the Mannschaft on their way to the Euro 84 final, while Germany got the better of them on the way to the 1966 World Cup final, as well as in 1982 and in Euro 88.
Spain have the most recent bragging rights, having beaten Germany 3-1 in 2003 with a brace from Raul and another from Real Madrid team-mate Guti. Despite both having had good seasons, neither made Luis Aragones' Euro squad amid much controversy. Meanwhile Germany last won in 2000 by four goals to one, with Michael Ballack the only member of that team still present in today's squad.
Germany's history in Euro finals has a distinct win-loss pattern that could play into Spain's hands. They made the final in three consecutive competitions in the 70s, losing finalists in their first in 1972, winning in 1976 and losing again in 1980. They then lost to underdogs Denmark in a memorable 1992 final before winning the following tournament in England, beating the Czech Republic in the final. Is it their turn to lose again?
Route To The Final
Spain have looked the more convincing side throughout the tournament and have overcome superior opponents overall, remaining unbeaten in the process. Their double over Russia - each win by three goals - cannot be understated, particularly when considering Russia's win over tournament favourites the Netherlands. They also showed their resolve to keep pressing against Sweden and grab a late winner, as well as when the second string came from behind against Greece in a dead rubber to seal victory. They even put to bed their penalty shootout hoodoo with a win over Italy on the exact day they have exited major tournaments three times in the past on the dreaded spot-kicks. The only thing they haven't done is taken the silverware home, and considering their achievements so far, few would deny them that honour.
Germany have been less convincing but incredibly potent in front of goal, a fact that will worry the Spaniards to no end. they scored three goals against Turkey with their only shots on target. Against Portugal, a side quite comparable to Spain, Germany produced their only top performance of the tournament; overpowering Luiz Felipe Scolari's men, punishing them from two set-pieces and won fierce counterattack. Their deficiencies at the back were compensated for by a strong defensive foundation in midfield, one they will be eager to replicate tomorrow evening. Goals from midfield have been vital for the Germans and as such, Spain will need to have a strong base in their own midfield and watch the runners to ensure they don't get hit on the break.
|25.06.08||Germany 3-2 Turkey||Euro 2008 semi-final|
|19.06.08||Germany 3-2 Portugal||Euro 2008 quarterfinal|
|16.06.08||Germany 1-0 Austria||Euro 2008 Group B|
|12.06.08||Germany 2-3 Croatia||Euro 2008 Group B|
|08.06.08||Germany 2-0 Poland||Euro 2008 Group B|
|26.06.08||Spain 3-0 Russia||Euro 2008 semi-final|
|21.06.08||Spain 0-0 Italy (AET, 4-2 pens)||Euro 2008 quarterfinal|
|18.06.08||Spain 2-1 Greece||Euro 2008 Group D|
|14.06.08||Spain 2-1 Sweden||Euro 2008 Group D|
|10.06.08||Spain 4-1 Russia||Euro 2008 Group D|
Torsten Frings has declared himself fit despite recently suffering a fractured rib that ruled him out of the quarterfinals and most of the semi. With his replacement, Simon Rolfes, suffering a nasty blow to the head against Turkey, the Werder Bremen midfielder is likely to slot back into his rightful place.
With captain Michael Ballack's inclusion a given, Thomas Hitzlsperger is likely to retain his place to make it a three man midfield ahead of striker Mario Gomez, who disappointed in the groups and is only likely to make an appearance as a substitute if at all.
The team is otherwise expected to remain as it has been in the knockout rounds, meaning no place for offensive full-back Marcell Jansen or Clemens Fritz on the opposite flank since Bastian Schweinsteiger seized his opportunity.
Probable starting line-up (4-5-1): Lehmann; Friedrich, Mertesacker, Metzelder, Lahm; Schweinsteiger, Frings, Ballack, Hitzlsperger, Podolski; Klose.
Tournament top scorer David Villa will almost certainly miss the final with a muscle injury, though there is a chance he may play a role from the bench if required.
With Dani Guiza not the type of striker best suited to partnering Fernando Torres up front, Luis Aragones is expected to opt for star substitute Cesc Fabregas and line up a five-man midfield, for which he recently expressed a preference.
The rest will remain as it is, with Aragones having made clear that he will stick with a winning formula.
Probable starting line-up (4-5-1): Casillas; Ramos, Puyol, Marchena, Capdevila; Iniesta, Xavi, Senna, Fabregas, Silva; Torres.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Michael Ballack: He is Germany's lynchpin, captain and chief big game player. Having been on the losing side in all the major finals of his career so far, he will certainly be looking to make amends for that tomorrow night - if he can play. Reports have emerged that he has aggravated a calf injury and is in serious doubt for the final, which would be the second major one he has missed in his career, having also sat out the 2002 World Cup loss to Brazil. Should he play, counting against him is the fact that Spain have shackled creative forces from opposing teams formidably in recent games - highlighted by Andrei Arshavin's muted performance in the semi-final - and an even slightly unfit Ballack will have his work cut out to make the difference tomorrow. However, his range of ability - from penalties and free-kicks to headers and long shots - means he could still pose a threat in almost any capacity.
Bastian Schweinsteiger: Left out of the team at the start of the tournament in favour of Clemens Fritz to give the team more defensive balance, Schweinsteiger's poor season looked to have cost him his status as Germany's emerging untouchable star. However, despite a late sending off as a substitute in the loss against Croatia, Joachim Loew displayed great faith in the bleach-blonde midfielder and it has paid dividends. His set-piece delivery has been magnificent - setting up two goals against Portugal - and his runs into the box have seen him grab one in each of the knockout games so far as well. Quite a redemption.
Lukas Podolski: Germany's top scorer and quite arguably most impressive player, considering he has not been given much of any playng time this season at Bayern Munich and is being played out of position in left wing at the tournament. He of course has been afforded a free-role of sorts, but nevertheless his work-rate, anticipation, direct running and absolute bullet of a shot have made him one of Germany's most uncontainable players. Almost all of Germany's attacking play and goals have come from his and Philipp Lahm's left flank, giving Spain right-back Sergio Ramos a lot to think about.
Carles Puyol: While Germany's defence has been renowned for its strength and has looked second rate, the opposite can be said of Spain at this tournament and much of the credit goes to Carles Puyol. He has led by example at the back in a defence that has conceded just two goals in four games (with the Greece encounter being almost an entirely different team and not including him). Puyol will need to maintain his discipline and positional to track the out-of-form but ever-present Miroslav Klose, an unenviable task, as the Bayern man has looked woefully short of form all tournament but still been on the mark with two headed goals after poor defending.
Cesc Fabregas: Spain's super-sub of the tournament and most impressive player for that exact reason. Few would expect someone to come off the bench and produce results so consistently over such a short space of time, but the 21-year-old cannot be denied his credit and, following an unfortunate injury to David Villa, he will almost certainly earn the start he deserves tomorrow. It will be up to him to prove he can do it from the off, acting as the sharp end of a three-man central midfield with Xavi and Senna in behind and Silva and Iniesta either side of him, and the man ahead will of course be...
Fernando Torres: Without David Villa in the side, there is more pressure on Torres to deliver. The Liverpool ace has delivered just one goal in four appearances so far despite being the focal point of La Furia Roja's attacking play. While his movement has been good and his running potentially dangerous, the finishing touch has been found wanting, and that is something Spain will not be able to afford tomorrow night. Will he seize the moment?
It is sure to be a tightly contested encounter and will most likely start slowly. It is unlikely either side will allow themselves to be beaten in normal time, and whoever concedes first will most likely strike back and take the game into extra time. Both sides have an array of attacking talent, and while Germany's are more clinical, Spain will most likely have the majority of possession and create more, that coupled with their slightly better options on the substitutes' bench, may just be enough to edge it and win them only their second ever major trophy.
Germany 1-1 Spain (1-2 AET)