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Germany v Italy -- the 4 key battles that will decide the second semi-final

There’s just the small matter of this heavyweight clash tonight. Here’s where it’ll be won and lost.

The key individual battles that will be pivotal in the Germany versus Italy Euro 2012 semi-final at the National Stadium tonight:

Mesut Ozil (GER) v Andrea Pirlo (ITA)

If there is one battle that will sway this match, it will be between the two play-makers. The difference between the two is that Ozil plays behind the frontman Mario Gomez while Pirlo is very much the orchestrator sitting deep in the Italy midfield and directing matters from there.

Because of that, the two will often cross paths as Ozil will be attacking in the zone in which Pirlo prefers to operate.

It promises to be an intriguing match-up, not least because neither is particularly well known for his defensive skills.

Germany are undoubtedly the favourites but if they allow Pirlo to control the tempo and rhythm of the game they could soon find themselves on the back foot chasing shadows.

It will be important for Ozil to close him down and prevent the Juventus man from having the time and space to ping passes around the ground.

But the Real Madrid forward is also going to need to concentrate on his own attacking game and that is where he will likely have most joy as Pirlo is far from being the dedicated man-marker.

Who comes out on top will largely depend on whose team dominates possession.

Thomas Mueller (GER) v Federico Balzaretti (ITA)

There can be little doubt that if Italy have a weak link it is Palermo full-back Balzaretti.

The left-back looked vulnerable when England attacked down their right early in the quarter-final against Italy and it was the failure of Roy Hodgson’s team to continue to do so, particularly when Theo Walcott entered the fray, that surprised many observers. Mueller certainly is not blessed with the natural, searing pace that Walcott has and won’t be able to “do” Balzaretti with that.

But, although the Palermo man likes to bomb forwards, his weakness is definitely in defence. Getting the ball regularly wide to Mueller and letting him take on Balzaretti could necessitate some double coverage, which would weaken Italy elsewhere.

England failed to exploit this area fully despite a bright opening but there is no doubt Joachim Loew will have keenly noted the potential in that area.

Mario Gomez is put through his paces during training. Pic: Frank Augstein/AP/Press Association Images

Mario Gomez (GER) v Andrea Barzagli (ITA)

One of the top strikers in Europe this season, there can be no question about the international standing of Gomez.

He is big, strong and deadly inside the area, with a knack for scoring a lot of goals.

Where he is really impressive is that he is more mobile than a lot of big forwards so presents the typical difficulties in terms of size and strength, but also subtler ones with his movement and reading of the game.

Barzagli had a taste of how hard it is to win the ball against a big man when England threw on Andy Carroll in the quarter-final.

But while winning aerial duels against the Englishman was almost impossible, waiting for him to clumsily get the ball under control with his feet and try to pick out a team-mate offered plenty of opportunities to steal it.

That won’t be the case with Gomez, who has much better close control and greater ability to pick out a team-mate with a pass.

Keeping him quiet both in the area and outside it in general build-up play will be a full-time job for both Barzagli and his defensive partner Leonardo Bonucci.

Manuel Neuer (GER) v Gianluigi Buffon (ITA)

A similar battle to the one the veteran Italy captain faced against England’s Joe Hart and came out on top in, Neuer is another young pretender to his throne. There is no doubt the goalkeepers can be the key to the game.

Buffon showed that in saving a crucial penalty from Ashley Cole in the shoot-out against England and in the early stages of the first-half with a superb reflex save from Glen Johnson.

It’s not just about shot-stopping and making saves, but also commanding a box in which many threats will lurk.

Buffon is the benchmark for all other goalkeepers and unless Neuer, a reknowned shot-stopper who struggles more on crosses, steps up to the plate and matches his opposite number, Italy could have a clear advantage in that area.

- © AFP, 2012

Gazzetta dello Sport sorry for Balotelli ‘King Kong’ cartoon

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