Italy, Germany renew rivalry at Euro

Between 1945 and 1951, Sugar Ray Robinson and Jake LaMotta engaged in a grueling and epic series of fights that helped define the sweet science.

The middleweights pounded each other violently and mercilessly, and the Bronx Bull knocked Robinson out of the ring to hand him his first-ever loss in the second fight. Despite Robinson dominating the legendary six-bout series (he won five times) the Robinson-LaMotta feud is considered one of the greatest rivalries in boxing.

Italy vs. Germany is soccer’s Robinson vs. LaMotta, two opponents whose rivalry, despite its lopsided nature, has produced some of the most memorable matches in the sport’s history. Now they are set to meet again in Thursday’s Euro 2012 semifinal, and the soccer world is waiting to see whether or not they’ll add another chapter to the history books.

If Brazil is considered the greatest soccer nation on the planet, then the battle for number two is clearly between Italy and Germany. Between them they’ve won seven World Cups and four European crowns, and they’ve reached the semifinals of both tournaments on numerous occasions, further underling their pedigree.

Although the Germans enter Thursday’s contest as the favourites, it is the Italians who hold the decided advantage in the all-time series. In 30 matches, Italy has won 14 times (with nine draws and seven losses) and has not lost to Germany since a 1995 friendly in Zurich.

More telling is the fact that Germany has never defeated Italy at a major tournament, including two European Championship encounters (they drew in the group stages of the 1988 and 1996 tournaments) and five World Cup matches.

The two sides faced off in no less than 10 friendlies up until 1955, the Italians winning the first meeting 1-0 in Milan on New Year’s Day of 1923. The first competitive contest between the two European heavyweights came during the group stage of the 1962 World Cup in Chile.

If the 0-0 draw in Santiago was uneventful, their next meeting at the World Cup more than made up for it. Their semifinal encounter in 1970 in Mexico has long been heralded as one of the greatest games in the tournament’s long and storied history.

The Azzurri took the lead in the eighth minute through Inter Milan striker Roberto Boninsegna. Italy stoutly defended its advantage before Karl-Heinz Schnellinger, who at the time played for AC Milan, equallized in the 90th minute to send the game to extra time.

What followed was 30 magical minutes, a classic battle between two rivals full of drama, tension and goals.

Gerd Muller scored in the 95th minute to put the Germans up, but Tarcisio Burgnich equalized for Italy three minutes later and Gigi Riva gave the Italians a 3-2 lead in the 103rd minute on a marvellous shot from outside the box.

There was another twist to the tale when Muller scored his second of the match in the 110th minute, but Gianni Rivera sealed the win for Italy when he completed the incredible scoring sequence just two minutes later.

More than 102,000 spectators field out of Mexico City’s Azteca Stadium, lucky enough to bear witness to a game that entered the sport’s pantheon, and was later commemorated with a special plaque in front of the legendary stadium referring to it as Partido del Siglo, the game of the century.

They would meet again eight years later in the second round of the World Cup in Buenos Aires, playing to a scoreless draw before meeting in the 1982 final in Madrid.

Interestingly, Italy entered the contest as the overwhelming fan favourite, Germany winning few friends after goalkeeper Harald Schumacher sent France’s Patrick Battiston to the hospital with his reckless challenge in the semifinals.

The teams played to draws in the group stages at Euro ’88 and ’96 before they met again at the World Cup in 2006, this time in the semifinals in Dortmund.

Italy thrashed Germany 4-1 in an exhibition match in Florence during the buildup to the tournament, but the Germans were considered the favourites. Italy had its work cut out against a Germany side that had not lost a game in 71 years in Dortmund, winning 13 of 14 matches there — a 1-1 draw against Wales in 1977 was the only blemish.

But that mattered little to Italy who went toe-to-toe with Germany in another classic encounter that saw the two sides engage in a fast-paced, attacking battle.

Both Gianluigi Buffon and Jens Lehmann made a series of outstanding saves keeping the game tied 0-0 after 90 minutes. The furious pace continued in extra time, but neither side could find a way to score.

With the game destined to head to a shootout, Italy won a corner kick after Lehmann did brilliantly to tip an Andrea Pirlo shot over the crossbar. But Pirlo would have the last laugh, as it was his incisive pass that found Fabio Gross inside the penalty area, and the Italian defender curled a gorgeous shot past Lehmann in the 119th minute.

The crowd was stunned into silence but before Germany could catch its breath, Italy launched a quick counter that ended with Alessandro Del Piero chipping a shot past Lehmann. Italy won the game and would go on to claim its fourth World Cup crown.

Now they meet again. Who will prevail? We’ll have to wait to see, but if history is any indication we’re in for an entertaining ride.

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