Bordeaux (AFP) – In a match which could have graced the final of Euro 2016, Joachim Loew’s world champions Germany take on Antonio Conte’s Italy in a quarter-final clash of giants on Saturday.
The prize on offer in Bordeaux is a semi-final against host nation France or surprise package Iceland, who meet on Sunday.
Germany line up with Bayern Munich stars like Thomas Mueller and defender Jerome Boateng, who is rapidly establishing himself as one of the team’s new leaders.
Italy, on the other hand, have proved they can shine in France with a tight unit melded by Chelsea-bound coach Antonio Conte and built on a solid defence featuring Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini in front of their one global star, 38-year-old stopper Gianluigi Buffon.
“The winner of this game could be considered a favourite to win the title,” Loew said.
Two years after limping out of a second successive World Cup before the knockout stage, the Azzurri are still in contention to win their first European title for 48 years.
Germany meanwhile have struggled to hit the heights they enjoyed in winning the World Cup in Brazil two years ago and have failed to hit top gear yet in France.
– Penalties predicted –
In the hours before kick-off, fans were milling around the Place des Quinconces in Bordeaux’s city centre with both sets of supporters predicting penalties.
“The problem is both teams know each other very well, the Germans have few weaknesses, but the Italian defence is very good,” said Italy fan Thomas, who had travelled from Denmark.
There were no signs of trouble with chants of “Deutschland, Deutschland!” from German fans rivalled by shouts of “Italia, Italia, Italia!”.
“It’s a great atmosphere,” said Uwe from Berlin.
“The Russian and English fans have gone home so everyone’s friendly. There’s been no trouble.
“I think Germany can win it, but it’ll be tough. Penalties, maybe.”
Both teams have talked up the respect factor and downplayed the significance of Italy’s eight-game unbeaten run against Germany at major tournaments.
Italy claimed a 2-1 win when the sides last met in competitive action in the Euro 2012 semi-finals, while Germany romped to a 4-1 friendly win in their most recent meeting in March.
Conte says Germany are “the most complete” squad of players he has ever seen.
Loew though said his players had analysed far more than just the watertight Italian defence, which reigning champions Spain could not breach as their bid to retain their title was crushed by the Italians in a 2-0 defeat.
“Italy don’t just have defensive qualities, their offensive game is strong too,” Loew said.
Germany midfielder Mesut Ozil said: “In big tournaments it’s true we’ve failed when it comes to playing Italy.
“But we knew from the start we would come up against top opposition, and we’re convinced we can reach our goals.”
Ozil has to supply the ammunition to a back-in-form Mario Gomez and Mueller, who despite his fine goalscoring record in World Cups has yet to find the net in a European Championships.
Euro 2016 threw up another surprise on Friday when Wales reached the semi-finals of a major tournament for the first time on their debut in the European championships.
Goals from Ashley Williams, Hal Robson-Kanu and Sam Vokes set up a mouthwatering semi-final clash with Portugal pitting Real Madrid stars Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo against one another.
“I’d imagine there are three million people back home going absolutely crazy and they deserve that,” said Wales boss Chris Coleman after they became the first British nation to reach the last four at a major tournament since England on home soil at Euro 96.
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