Germany and Italy will revive memories of dramatic tournament semifinal encounters while Spain find Iberian rivals Portugal barring their path to the final in a Euro 2012 last four which accurately reflects the balance of power in European football.
The four remaining teams have produced over the group stage and quarterfinals the best football of the tournament, and although none have been consistent throughout, all deserve to be playing for a place in the final in Kiev on Sunday.
Both England against Italy and France against Spain came up short, while any chance of a tournament surprise was dashed with Germany’s 4-2 defeat of Greece and Portugal’s 10 victory over the Czech Republic in the quarterfinals.
The only real surprise of the tournament was the three defeats of the Netherlands, the losing World Cup finalists in 2010 and number four in FIFA’s world rankings, as well as the failure of Russia to advance after a promising 4-1 victory over the Czech Republic in their opening game.
Neither of the co-hosts, Poland and Ukraine, could advance from the group stage, repeating the failure of the 2008 co-hosts Austria and Switzerland.
It leaves a semifinal featuring two teams from group C in Italy and Spain, who drew 1-1, and two from group B in Germany and Portugal, with Germany beating Portugal 1-—0.
Italy needed penalties to progress against England on Sunday but no one will begrudge them a meeting with Germany in Warsaw on Thursday, after the Azzurri lost out in a shoot-out at the same stage at Euro 2008 against eventual winners Spain.
The Spanish, meanwhile, are on a record quest for three successive tournament wins following 2008 and the 2010 World Cup. They must now deal with a well-known opponent in Portugal and Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo in the Iberian duel in Donetsk on Wednesday.
Spain have the better record against Portugal, with 15 wins in 37 games against nine defeats and 13 draws, and if they reach the final will emulate West Germany, who achieved a hat-trick of successive final appearances in the 1970s.
Portugal, who have never won a major title and lost to Spain in the last 16 of the 2010 World Cup, are seeking a return to the final, eight years after they were beaten by Greece while hosting Euro 2004.
It will be a meeting of acquaintances, with three Portugal players -- Pepe, Fabio Coentrao and Cristiano Ronaldo -- playing for Real Madrid and others in the squad also at Spanish clubs.
“Our great aim is to get to the final,” Ronaldo said after he had headed the winner against the Czechs. “We have a great squad and now I’d say the chances are 50-50 and we just have to believe. We are very mature, so we are ready for the fight.” Italy and Germany, meanwhile, need no introduction, having clashed at the latter stages of past tournaments, including the 1982 World Cup final, won 3-1 by Italy.
Germany’s 2-0 defeat in extra-time in the semifinals of the 2006 World Cup is still fresh in German memories, while the older generation will recall a dramatic 1970 World Cup semifinal which the Italians won 4-3 in extra-time.
Also galling for Germany is that they have never beaten Italy at a World Cup or European Championship and have a negative record against the Azzurri with only seven wins and 14 defeats in 30 matches.
“What more do you want than a real classic in a semifinal. We can all look forward to it. Our big aim is to be in the final,” said Germany captain Philipp Lahm, who was a member of the Germany team which lost to Italy in 2006.
More recently, the teams met in a friendly in Dortmund in February 2011, with Germany fielding a team similar to the one at Euro, in a match which finished 1-1. Cesare Prandelli, who succeeded Marcello Lippi after the 2010 World Cup, was just beginning to ring the changes at the time.
“Germany and Spain are favourites here,” Prandelli said. “Germany are a great side -- they made changes against Greece and it made no difference.”