Germany-Spain feels more like a final
The reigning European champion vs. the runner-up. The leading scorer at this World Cup vs. No. 2 on the all-time list. The most dynamic team at this tournament vs. a squad that's yet to show its full brilliance. A three-time champion vs. a team craving its first title.
Sounds like a great World Cup final.
"Two of the best teams in the World Cup have to play in the semifinal," Spain striker Fernando Torres said, "so unlucky for one of them."
There's a game in every World Cup that comes a round or two too soon, and Germany-Spain definitely qualifies.
Spain has lost all of two games since November 2006, and it ended a 44-year major title drought when it beat Germany to win the European Championship in 2008. David Villa leads World Cup scoring with five goals (Italy and France combined for five before crashing out in the group stage), and the Spanish defense hasn't allowed a goal in the knockout stage.
Germany, meanwhile, made old rivals England and Argentina look downright silly in their knockout round games, routing them by a combined score of 8-1 to reach the semifinals for a third straight World Cup. Miroslav Klose has regained his old form and, with two goals against Argentina, moved into a tie with Gerd Mueller for second place on the all-time scoring list.
But it's not just the stats that make this such a tantalizing matchup.
Few teams can keep up when Germany and Spain are at their best, but each is the other's equal.
"Spain is very strong as a unit, both in offense and defense. They have several players who can decide games and tactically they are very good," Germany coach Joachim Loew said. "But at the moment we are capable of beating everyone."
Loew has remade his team since that Euro 2008 loss, bringing in several young players that have given Germany the speed and sharpness it lacked. Despite its youth - with an average age under 25, this is the second-youngest team Germany has ever sent to a World Cup - the Germans are playing with discipline and a seamless chemistry that makes their plays unfold like a symphony.
Their spacing in the midfield is awe-inspiring, their passing so exquisite it almost looks as if the ball is on an invisible wire from one player's foot to another's. As for the defense, it's simply scary. Whenever Lionel Messi or Carlos Tevez appeared on the verge of doing something in the quarterfinal, German defenders swarmed around to force a turnover or a bad shot.
And when Germany is on the counterattack, look out.
"It's probably the most complete team in the World Cup. A team that has changed since the 2008 final, with young and fresh faces," backup Spain goalkeeper Pepe Reina said. "It's the most dangerous rival at the moment."
Germany will have a somewhat different look without Thomas Mueller, who has scored four goals like Klose but is suspended after picking up his second yellow card against Argentina. Then again, the Germans did OK when Klose was suspended, beating Ghana in the group stage.
While Spain's team has changed little in the last two years, it doesn't have the same flair as those European champions. Torres has struggled after having knee surgery in April, and Cesc Fabregas' status against Germany is in doubt after he hurt his right leg in practice Monday night. That's the same leg Fabregas broke in March, allowing him to play just two games before arriving in South Africa.
The Spanish were stunned by Switzerland in the group stage, and needed a late goal from Villa to beat Paraguay 1-0 in the quarters after both teams had penalty kicks saved.
Make no mistake, though, Spain is still plenty dangerous.
"For me, Spain is the favorite for the title," Loew said. "Spain has not one Messi, but several Messis who can decide a game."
The Spanish acknowledge they have not been at their best in South Africa. But part of that has been because of their opponents, Villa said, and facing Germany should allow Spain's offense to get back on track.
"The Germans have played a brilliant World Cup so far," Andres Iniesta said. "We're also at the top of our game, I think. It will be a game between two rivals who enjoy having the ball and I think it will be a beautiful battle."
Even if it's not in the final.