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Spain versus Germany: It's a rematch of the 2008 European finals. Here's our take on the match.
What's on the line:
Three-time champion Germany will be going up against a Spanish side with a long history of World Cup underachievement in the tournament's second semifinal on Wednesday in Durban, South Africa. Spain entered the competition as co-favorite but has looked short of its best. Germany, meanwhile, has been dynamic from the beginning, playing arguably the best soccer of the tournament in hammering both England and Argentina. Given the quality on display, it's a match fit for a final.
Style and tactics:
No one plays the possession game better than Spain, which, despite the overtly defensive tactics of its opponents, has been content to stay patient, stick to its game plan and eventually wear down other teams. The key to La Furia Roja's attack is the midfield trio of Xabi Alonso, Xavi and Andres Iniesta. Alonso sits deeper than the other two, and his long passes provide a nice counterweight to those of Xavi and Iniesta, who rely more on quick combinations. These players have set the table for David Villa, who has scored a tournament-leading five goals.
There are times when Spain can become predictable and try too often to thread clever passes through the middle rather than use the space on the flanks. This has seen it struggle against organized sides like Portugal and Paraguay, and it'll need to introduce a bit more variety to break down Germany.
Almost lost in the shuffle is the performance of Spain's defense, one that has conceded just two goals in the tournament. Center backs Gerard Pique and Carles Puyol have been largely solid, although the latter might miss the semifinal because of injury, leaving the experienced Carlos Marchena to take his place.
Germany has brushed aside the loss of injured captain Michael Ballack to deliver some scintillating displays. Die Mannschaft has been absolutely lethal in attack in all manner of ways, dictating the pace one moment, soaking up pressure and nailing teams on the counterattack the next.
Unfortunately for Germany, the suspension of Thomas Mueller because of an accumulation of yellow cards will rob the team of one of its best attacking weapons, and it will be up to the likes of Toni Kroos or Piotr Trochowski to fill the void.
Germany's defense has been solid throughout the tournament. Center backs Per Mertesacker and Arne Friedrich complement each other well, with Friedrich's speed providing a nice counterweight to Mertesacker's aerial dominance. Holding midfielder Sami Khedira along with outside backs Philipp Lahm and Jerome Boateng have helped cover up any mistakes.
Players to watch:
Highlighting just one of Spain's midfielders is like choosing the best diamond, but Xavi has shown his class once again. His clever touches, like his cheeky backheel that released Villa for the only goal against Portugal, reveal a player capable of the unexpected as well as crisp, safe passes that maintain possession.
David Villa, Spain
Spain has plenty of players to thank for its spot in the semifinals, but foremost among those is Villa. The pacy attacker leads the tournament's goal-scoring list, and those strikes have gotten Spain out of some dicey situations. Villa has lined up primarily on the left wing but also has been stationed inside when Fernando Torres hasn't been on the field. In either case, Villa's trickery on the ball as well as his uncanny positional sense have seen him pop up for five of Spain's six goals.
Fernando Torres, Spain
Torres has not looked himself since coming back from knee surgery in April, and that's been especially evident in his World Cup performances. His touch has been subpar, and he's rarely looked dangerous. But lest anyone forget, it was Torres who scored the winner in the Euro 2008 final against Germany. While coach Vicente del Bosque might bench Torres, let's also not forget that if he converts Wednesday, all his previous struggles will be instantly forgotten.
Philipp Lahm, Germany
Lahm has faced plenty of talented players before, but Wednesday will provide the ultimate test, as he'll be tasked with stopping the prolific Villa. Lahm's quickness should make him well suited to that task, and the best defense could be an aggressive attack, as Lahm's runs forward could help negate Villa's impact.
Mesut Ozil, Germany
Ozil is just one of several young, dynamic players at Germany's disposal. The Werder Bremen attacker is often given a free role underneath striker Miroslav Klose, and has caused havoc throughout the tournament with his darting runs and ability to set up others. Given Mueller's suspension, Ozil will need to raise his game even further.
Sami Khedira, Germany
Spain is capable of mesmerizing opponents with its slick passing game, so it will be up to Khedira to disrupt the flow of La Furia Roja's attack with his tough tackling and mobility. While Bastian Schweinsteiger assumes most of the attacking duties out of the center of midfield, Khedira has been known to get forward as well, and he'll have to pick his spots effectively in order to keep Spain's midfield honest.
What we can expect:
As always, Spain will be intent on establishing its possession game. Based on Germany's success on the counterattack against Argentina, this won't trouble the Mannschaft at all, and Spain's more deep lying midfielders, Sergio Busquets and Xabi Alonso, will need to be mindful of Germany's ability to strike quickly.
Given Germany's strength down the middle, Spain will have to make use of the flanks. This requires not only getting outside backs Joan Capdevila and Sergio Ramos into the attack, but also getting those players to deliver quality crosses when they get the chance, something that was a problem in the quarterfinal win over Paraguay.
Germany will need someone besides Ozil to provide some dynamic play in attack and provide service to Klose, who with four goals in the tournament has shown he still has what it takes to be effective at the highest level. Look for Schweinsteiger to assume even more of an attacking role than in games past.
Given that Spain beat Germany to claim the Euro 2008 crown, it would appear that La Furia Roja has the mental edge. Yet it is Germany who has been playing the better soccer of late, so the advantage from past encounters is not as great as it might seem at first.
The loss of Muller is significant, but so is the potential absence of Puyol. The bottom line is that there isn't much that separates these two teams.
Who will win:
Germany has shown a greater tactical flexibility throughout the tournament, and given the team's higher level of form at the moment, I think it'll win 2-1.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He is also the author of "Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks." He can be reached at email@example.com.