The final four have been extracted from the herd by means of ruthless elimination, and now they face possibly the most nerve-wracking experience in professional sport, the semi-final. Once you make it to the final there is a freedom with knowing you only have to play once, and it will be over soon, but at the penultimate stage the pressure is immense not to let yourself or your team-mates down, and end up wondering what might have been.
Some good sides have fallen by the wayside, notably Holland, France and England, but they were all outplayed or outthought, and can have no real complaints about the manner of their respective eliminations. The pre-tournament favourites, World and European champions Spain and the side they beat in the 2008 European final, Germany, are still here with varying degrees of difficulty ahead of them if they want a rematch. From the point of view of the neutral you’d have to say that’s the ideal game as well, with the best players on show and teams that are well-matched in terms of ability.
First they must make it, and after a fairly simple game against Greece in the last eight Germany now face Italy, and the Germans have a few reasons to be very optimistic about their chances in this one. Not only is this Italian side one in transition, with some younger players earning their first few caps and a volatile frontman in Mario Balotelli, but they played two days later than their German rivals, and for 30 more minutes after going to extra time. Joachim Low’s German side would have been favourites for the game anyway after demolishing a lacklustre Greek side 4-2, but this has added even more weight to their credentials.
VictorChandler have Germany at 20/21 to make the final, with Italy 4/1 outsiders at the time of writing, but the old adage that anything can happen is never so true as in a big international match. Admittedly the Germans have a lot going for them, but I don’t think even Joachim Low can call on a player of Andrea Pirlo’s quality, and the Italian playmaker will be a key factor in deciding the fate of his side. The Italians will probably trouble German keeper Manuel Neuer, but the 9/1 on a 2-1 win for Germany with Ladbrokes seems a decent bet, and we could well see Mario Gomez restored to the team, an 11/2 shot with Coral to score first.
The other match is a regular Iberian derby between Spain and Portugal, with interesting confrontations all over the pitch. Something like nine of the Spanish starting eleven for their match against France play for either Real Madrid or Barcelona, and with Portugal have a few Real players of their own in Ronaldo, Pepe and Fabio Coentrao it is certain the two sides will know their enemies well. Whether this will translate into a good or bad game is debateable, but it will be very interesting to see in Vicente Del Bosque alters the Spanish system to shackle Cristiano Ronaldo or stays with his theory that players without the ball cannot hurt you, so his team must simply keep the ball.
Spain are heavy favourites with all the bookies, 188Bet having them at 39/40 to go through while you can get 369/100 on Portugal, with BetDaq. Although they are the best side in the world, their performance against France was noticeable for being fairly comfortable, and many of the victories Spain have achieved in recent years have been hard-fought games, 1-0’s and penalty wins. I’m sure they’d love to dispose of Portugal is a simple manner, but if Ronaldo scores first (6/1 with Ladbrokes) they’ll need to attack more intensively than at any stage so far. For me the 5/1 on a 1-0 Spain win with BlueSquare is still your best bet, though.
There is a clear feeling that a Spain v Germany final is the most likely, at 11/10 with PaddyPower, and the chances of Italy meeting the Portuguese are 41/5 according to BetFair. I think this is one of those occasions where the focus on the fact they are favourites could end up hurting those teams most likely, but I’d say Portugal are more likely to upset the odds. They are better-rested than Italy and also probably playing a more familiar side, but as always the thrill will be finding out how it all shakes down. Be sure not to miss a minute of the action, whatever you do.