Two years ago, Spain and Germany met in the final of the European Championships, with a first half goal from Fernando Torres giving Spain their second major title. Though the final score was 1-0, Spain controlled the match with a possession-heavy style with which they've become associated. The performance, if not the score, was decisive.
Since that match in Vienna, Germany has undergone significant change. Only six players who started that day are still in the squad. Current starters Mesut Özil, Sami Khedira, Jerome Boateng and Manuel Neuer had yet to make their way into the senior team.
Spain has experienced fewer changes, with ten of the players who started in Vienna expected to be available for Wednesday's match. The biggest change comes at the touchline, where Vincente del Bosque, the coach who inherited the team from Luis Aragones after that tournament, is struggling to find the team's championship form.
Spain versus Germany, Durban, 2:30 p.m. Eastern, ESPN
Where They Stand: Both teams come into the semifinals having lost with one tournament loss, but that’s where the similarities seem to end. The team that should be favorites has reached a nadir of form, while the neophyte multiculturalists have reached their apex.
Germany is coming off back-to-back four goal games, giving them three quadruples in five matches. In the knock-out rounds they’ve rolled through England and Argentina, cementing a crisis of identity in the former, accumulating a 13-to-2 goal ratio along the way. There is little debate as to whether the Germans are the in-form team. The question is whether their youth will allow them to carry that momentum through the tournament’s final.
To get there, Germany will have to beat Spain without arguably their best player in World Cup 2010, right wing Thomas Müller, who will serve a one game, yellow card accumulation suspension on Wednesday. Were it not for the suspension, we would have to start talking about Müller along with David Villa and Bastian Schweinsteiger for the Golden Ball. On Thursday, he will be replaced in the lineup by either Toni Kroos or Piotr Trochowski.
Spain will make no changes that aren’t voluntary, which is not to say there won’t be changes. Fans of La Casi Furia Roja have been anticipating a switch away from the struggling Fernando Torres, who has started at striker since the tournament’s second match. The alternatives are Fernando Llorente, a like-for-like change, and Cesc Fabregas, whose inclusion would move David Villa back inside from the left-sided deployment where he’s scored his tournament-leading five goals.
Unfortunately for Spain, disrupting Villa is pretty risky. The new Barcelona attacker has scored five out of Spain's six goals, setting-up the other. The only match in which he did not score was the one where he started in a central role - the Switzerland loss. If Cesc Fabregas is the solution - a solution that likely moves Andres Iniesta to the left and Villa back to the middle - it may create new, albeit smaller, problem.
Player(s) To Watch, Spain: Everything has gone through David Villa thus far, to such an extent that it’s difficult imagining Spain winning without him scoring. However, if they are going to do so, Xavi Hernández is going to have to make a star out of a Cesc Fabregas or Fernando Llorente the same way he’s fused so many stars for Barcelona. And it that doesn’t work, he can always fall-back on his partnership with Andrés Iniesta, the only other Spaniard to score in the 2010 World Cup.
Player(s) To Watch, Germany: Coming off possibly the best match of his career, Bastian Schweinsteiger, from his position in deep midfield, will be crucial to containing an increasingly narrow Spain attack. Along with Sami Khedira, Schweinsteiger will be tasked with protecting the suspect central defense pairing while Hernández, Fàbregas, and Iniesta try to ticky-tack their way to scoring chances.
If David Villa’s deployed through the middle, he becomes part of that battle of centrally deployed players; however, if Villa stays on the left, right back Philipp Lahm and Villa get to engage in a classic mano-a-one battle, a match-up tantalizing enough to make you wish Llorente gets his chance as Spain’s striker. Philipp Lahm’s defending is much improved over the two years, but David Villa would be a difficult test for the most defensive-minded of fullbacks. While the German captain may be up to the test, it would be nice if we could find out with some certainty.
In attack, Lukas Podolski may have to pick-up some of the slack created by Thomas Müller’s absence. He and central attacking midfielder Mesut Özil will be worth watching to see how they adjust without the presence of their versatile, right-sided counterpart.
Prediction: Though there are a number of questions about Vicente del Bosque’s choices in attack, the side’s biggest uncertainties will be Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets’ ability to stop Germany’s attacking midfielders before they hit the back line. In that way, this match may turn into a battle of which holding midfield duo performs best, with a Germany 2, Spain 1 result reflecting the relative strength of the Schweinsteiger, Khedira tandem.