James Lawton: Germany's invincible force vs Spain's irresistible flair
Will the beautiful game of the pre-tournament favourites stand up to Germany's attack? Our writer on a classic culture clash
Wednesday 07 July 2010
Bastian Schweinsteiger did not exactly smash down the door and shout, like a bar-room bully, "bring on Spain", but he is not a young man to equivocate on or off the field. The question was simple enough and so was his answer. If he had the choice of semi-final opponents, he would choose Spain not Paraguay.
"If you want to be the best, you have to beat the best and that's how a lot of people think of Spain," he said. "They are champions of Europe and they have great players. So if we are to be champions of the world it would be better to beat the favourites."
It is the most distinguishing mark of this young German side that they are filled with self-belief. Another sign of their achievement here while dismantling England and Argentina is that Schweinsteiger's declaration scarcely raised a single eyebrow.
German football is marching here with a conviction remarkable even by its own extraordinary standards.
So why do some hold doggedly to the instinct that it will be Spain appearing in their first final, as opposed to Germany in their eighth, in Johannesburg's Soccer City on Sunday?
It is because they still believe in the promise Spain made when they won their first major tournament in 44 years by beating Germany in the European Championship in Vienna two years ago.
Germany, it is true, are a different side now. They have new, thoroughbred blood running through their veins. They have the old goal larcenist Miroslav Klose returned to the top of his predatory powers. Yet there is a potentially more important question: is it a different Spain, is it a team fallen back from the deep belief in their own artistry that was crowned by a goal from Fernando Torres?
Some evidence suggests that self-doubt may have grown here over the last few weeks.
Defeat by a near-anonymous Swiss team in the opening game asked questions that are still far from resolved, and not least in the quarter-final struggle against Paraguay. Where, many are asking, would they be without the undimmed confidence and optimism of five-goal David Villa? The answer is self-evident. They would be back home and asking forlornly what happened to their idea of not just winning the World Cup but making a new statement about the potential of the game to restate its life and its beauty.
They might have cited the fatigue plainly affecting Torres. They might have talked of the heightened expectation which Sir Alex Ferguson offers as the reason for Wayne Rooney's mystifying failure. They might have sighed and mumbled, sadly, that maybe they had run their course too quickly.
Better, though, both for Spain and the way this World Cup will always be remembered, for a bonfire to be made of all those questions in Durban tonight. Better they shrivel up when a team who, it is still reasonable to believe, have greatness within them say to the Germans, "nice try boys, but this is where the wheels fall off your chariot".
For many here, such a statement already touches sacrilege. Undoubtedly, Schweinsteiger and his team-mates have taken hold of the imagination of the tournament. They have played boldly and with such freedom that it is not easy to dispute the possibility that they have achieved unstoppable momentum.
Yet some crucial questions still have to be asked. How deep will their resources run when they are opposed by the best midfield in the game – and a defence not likely to break apart as abjectly as those of England and Argentina? Will Schweinsteiger find his confidence so easy to recharge when confronted by the likes of Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta, who know that, finally, their reputations as great players have been brought to the line? Will Mesut Ozil, the most precocious of significant performers these last few weeks, carry the same influence when Xabi Alonso seeks to set up his most commanding sphere of influence?
These questions, admittedly, depend for their substance on the Spanish ability to move their game up another notch from what we have seen here so far. For Spain, the key almost certainly rests with the ability of Iniesta to find his most surgical form. He showed a flash of it in the quarter-final and Paraguay, who had fought with impressive tenacity and skill, were destroyed in a moment. No player on earth makes space and time for his team-mates quite so sublimely as Iniesta and when he achieved the half-break and rolled the ball into the path of a team-mate with the outside of his foot, the resulting goal of Villa was as inevitable as a sunrise.
Maybe that is what it was. Perhaps it was some light shedding on the most beautiful side in this tournament. This, certainly, was how Spain were seen when they arrived here last month.
Yes, some of us were excessively diverted by what we saw as the Mean Yellow Machine of Brazil – and the life-giving emotion Diego Maradona appeared to be transmitting to his Argentina team, and most notably Lionel Messi.
But when the Brazilian machine fell apart under the investigation of the Dutch and Messi was left in tears by a German team ruthlessly exposing the fact that beneath the Argentines' talent there was a terrible frailty, we had a new tournament filled with fresh possibilities.
Yet there was still Spain, still a standard set in the years coming into the tournament – still a belief that they might not only win but do so in a way that lifted Africa's first World Cup beyond the killing threat of mediocrity.
The Germans, it has to be said, have challenged the idea in the most dramatic way. But have they proved themselves a better team than the one they face tonight? Do they have the same power to create unanswerable brilliance when pitted against a proper defence?
It is maybe the last big question of this World Cup and it does not permit an easy answer. However, here, it has to be no.
We've met before...
It is two years since Spain's last meeting with Germany, which came in the European Championship final in Vienna in June 2008. A first-half Fernando Torres strike separated the teams, the Liverpool forward lifting a Xavi pass over Jens Lehmann to give Spain their first major title in 44 years. As with tonight's game, Spain were unbeaten in the tournament going into the final, while Germany had already lost a group game, 2-1 to Croatia. However, Joachim Löw's side then continued their fine form from the 2006 World Cup – where they reached the semi-finals on home soil – beating Portugal and Turkey in the knockout stages. After a strong start from the Germans, Luis Aragones' side went on to dominate proceedings, Torres also hitting a post and midfielder Marcos Senna missing from close range late in the second half. Lehmann made a couple of fine saves until the final whistle confirmed Spain's 1-0 win.
Bastian Schweinsteiger Germany
21 Number of goals by the midfielder in his 79 appearances. Germany have never lost when he has scored
Xavi Hernandez Spain
464 The midfielder has made the most passes in the World Cup, ahead of compatriots Xabi Alonso (406) and Sergio Busquets (400)
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