The four teams left in Euro 2012 took a welcome breather from match action on Monday, the first of two rest days ahead of a pair of intriguing semi-finals which pit familiar foes against one another.
Germany and holders Spain are favorites to reach Sunday’s final, but they must overcome respectively the weight of history and the world’s most expensive player, Cristiano Ronaldo, to get there.
Germany, whose exciting young side have won all of their games so far, scoring nine goals along the way, have never beaten opponents Italy at a major tournament in seven attempts and are sweating on the fitness of playmaker Bastian Schweinsteiger ahead of tomorrow’s game in Warsaw.
However, “Schweini” returned to training on Monday after two days on the sidelines and Germany are hopeful he will be able to shake off a nagging ankle problem in time to face Italy.
Italy have their own injury headaches and coach Cesare Prandelli complained that the timing of the quarter-finals meant his opponents would have had two extra days to recover.
“It’s a problem that UEFA must consider for the next European Championship,” he told a press conference on Monday. “To play a semi with this small gap does not help the spectacle.”
As in 2006, when Italy were eventually crowned world champions, the team came into the tournament with unwanted headlines at home due to a domestic match-fixing scandal, but the Azzurri have drawn praise for playing an attractive attacking game and they had 35 shots on goal in Sunday’s 0-0 draw with England in Kiev — the first game to go to extra-time at the finals — before prevailing on penalties.
“Italy have been surprising at this tournament and they fully deserve to be in the last four,” Germany midfielder Mesut Ozil told reporters. “There was a lot of negative stuff written about them before the tournament, but they have showed how good a team they are.”
The tournament, being held in eastern Europe for the first time, has been the most closely fought in years, but for Poland’s co-hosts Ukraine the successful staging of matches on the pitch has been marred by a diplomatic boycott due to the jailing of former Ukrainian prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
A Ukrainian court on Monday adjourned Tymoshenko’s tax evasion trial until the middle of next month, but that will do little to unfreeze talks on trade and other issues with the EU or persuade foreign leaders to attend the tournament final in Kiev.
Spain and Portugal meet in the first semi-final in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk today, with the focus on the clash between Ronaldo and his teammates from La Liga champions Real Madrid.
Madrid midfielder Xabi Alonso said Spain did not have a specific plan to counter the threat of the team’s third topscorer of all time.
“We always play with the same idea, whoever the opponent. In this case, we will analyze Cristiano’s game and there may be small adjustments, but we will try to play as a team because that’s the best way to stop a player,” Alonso told reporters.