Silk vs. Steel, the winners’ bracket

Spain rolled past Russia yesterday 3-0 to reach the final of Euro 2008. They will face Germany on Sunday. There’s surprisingly little recent history of big matches between these two teams, but Germany has a history of winning big matches and Spain of losing them.

You can make a case for both teams, and I think I will:

The case for Germany. It’s a big match, and they are the Germans. They are steel and Spain are silk. Sure, Spain looked great against Russia yesterday, but Spain also looked great when they beat Russia 4-1 is the first round. The next time out, the Spaniards were ordinary, edging Sweden 2-1. The Spaniards were also unable to break down Italy. Think of Germany as Italy with the ability to score goals. In fact, Germany scored three against both Portugal and Turkey in the knock-out rounds.

Portugal is probably the team that most closely resembles Spain in this tournament. Germany had its way with Portugal. The Germans had to play their best match so far to accomplish this, but with their history of rising to the big occasion one shouldn’t assume that they won’t equal or exceed that performance on Sunday.

The case for Spain. Spain is flat-out better. Which Germans could reasonably expect to start for Spain? Probably Ballack and Lahm; maybe Schweinsteiger. On the other hand, Spanish reserves Xabi Alonso and Fabregas would not just waltz into the German starting 11, but would be among the stars.

Germany is not Italy defensively, as their performance against Turkey shows. In goal, for example, Lehmann is not Buffon. At his advanced age, he may not even be very good. And Spain is not Portugal. Aragones has learned from his mistakes, and Spain is no longer naive defensively. In fact, they have become steely at the back. Senna and Puyol are as tough as they come, and though Marchena has his limitations, he’s not soft. Against Russia, Spain proved that it has the patience not to leave its defenders exposed, as happened in the last World Cup against France.

The Spanish teams that failed in the past were good to very good; this team is very good to great. When Senna, Xavi, Fabregas and Iniesta are on the field together, as they were when the rout of Russia commenced, they form arguably the best midfield since France’s great quartet of Fernandez, Giresse, Tigana, and Platini. France won Euro 1984 with that midfield, thereby breaking the hex that had long plagued French football (on the other hand they were playing at home, and against Spain).

It may not be smart to bet against Germany in a final, but the Germans are not invincible at that stage. This German team feels more like the World Cup runner-ups of 1986 and 2002 than a team poised to win a major competition against a high-quality opponent.

The verdict. It’s anyone’s match, but I find the case for Spain to be the more persuasive one.

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