Showdown has touch of finality

DURBAN, South Africa — The reigning European champion vs. the runner-up. One of the top scorers 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.

Too bad it’ll be the semifinals when Germany and Spain face off today at Moses Mabhida Stadium, with many expecting the winner to go on to be crowned world champion four days later. The Germany-Spain winner will play the Netherlands in the final.

“This would have been a great final, actually,” Germany’s Lukas Podolski said Tuesday. “We want revenge for 2008. When you are in a final, you want to win. We still think about that defeat, and it still hurts.”

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 shares the scoring lead at this World Cup with Wesley Sneijder (five goals), and Spain’s defense hasn’t allowed a goal in the knockout stage.

Germany, meanwhile, made old rivals England and Argentina look silly in their knockout-round games, routing them by a combined score of 8-1 to reach a third straight World Cup semifinal. 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.

“I don’t think there are favorites at this stage,” Spain’s Andres Iniesta said. “What they say about us, we can also say the same thing about them. You can say they are a great team, a team that has players of a very, very high level.”

Germany coach Joachim Loew has remade his team since that Euro 2008 loss, bringing in young players such as Mesut Oezil, Sami Khedira and Thomas Mueller who have given Germany the speed and sharpness it lacked. Despite their youth — with an average age under 25, this is the second-youngest team Germany has 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.

Germany will have a somewhat different look without Mueller, who has scored four goals but is suspended after picking up his second yellow card against Argentina.

While Spain’s team has changed little in the last two years, it hasn’t had the same flair in South Africa that it did at Euro 2008. The Spanish were stunned by Switzerland in the group stage and needed a late goal from Villa to beat Paraguay 1-0 in the quarterfinals.

Make no mistake, though, Spain is still plenty dangerous.

Spain also caught a break Tuesday, when midfielder Cesc Fabregas was able to work out with the rest of the team. In practice Monday, Fabregas took a ball off the spot where his leg was broken in March. But tests ruled out any bone injuries, and coach Vicente del Bosque said Fabregas is available for the game.

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