Considering the two nations have such notable tournament records, the fact that Germany have never beaten Italy at the finals of a World Cup or European Championships comes as something of a surprise.
In this country, at least, we tend to believe that the Germans can beat anybody, and have done on several occasions. Not Italy in tournaments, though. The closest they came was in England in 1996, when a draw with Italy was enough to take Germany out of the group stage and send the Italians home. But that was a draw, one of four in the seven previous meetings between Thursday's semi-finalists at tournaments. The other three went Italy's way, including the memorable 4-3 in the 1970 World Cup semi-final in Mexico City, and the 2006 World Cup semi-final in Dortmund when two goals in extra-time prevented Germany reaching the final in Berlin.
That is the sort of record that demands respect, yet if Germany are ever going to break the sequence the time is surely now. Joachim Löw's young team have been the best to watch at the tournament to date, winning all four of their games to extend a remarkable winning run to 15 matches. The Germans are in the last four for the fourth time in a row, having reached the semi-final or better in every tournament since 2006, and appear to be improving all the time, with a high-tempo passing game based on the driving midfield trio of Sami Khedira, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Mesut Ozil. Schweinsteiger was around in 2006, along with Philipp Lahm, Miroslav Klose and Lukas Podolski, but the rest of the team is new.
Then again, so is most of Italy's. Of the team that beat France in the 2006 World Cup final, only Gianluigi Buffon and Andrea Pirlo survive, though it is perhaps significant that the Italian system is still the same, with Pirlo providing most of the ideas and the passing inspiration. Judging by the praise showered on the 33-year-old after the quarter-final defeat of England you would think Pirlo and Italy were still at the very top of their game, still showing the rest of Europe how it should be done, although this is not necessarily the case. England were poor, defensive and hopeless at keeping the ball, for a start, yet Italy still went two hours without scoring a goal.
Pirlo's Panenka-style penalty was exquisite, as cool as you like, yet his passing cannot have been that effective if Italy were unable to rumble England's feeble plan of taking the game to a shootout and hoping for some luck. Based on their displays so far in this tournament, notably the wins over Holland and Portugal as well as the ultra-defensive Greece, it would have been hard to imagine the Germans going two hours without scoring a goal against England. Something resembling a repeat of the 4-1 rout in Bloemfontein two years ago would have been more likely, with Germany pulling English defenders all over the pitch then using their superior pace and energy to pour through the holes.
That is not to say Germany's semi-final against Italy will go that way, for Italians can defend, keep a shape and keep hold of the ball much better than England have recently demonstrated. But unlike Germany this Italy side have not so far found goals easy to come by. Mario Balotelli, Antonio Cassano and Antonio Di Natale have a goal each (Pirlo himself scored the other one direct from a free kick) but Cesare Prandelli seems to be having trouble deciding which pair he ought to use up front, since no one has proved quite as adept as had been hoped at reading Pirlo's intentions and benefiting from his carefully-timed through balls.
If anything, the Germans have the opposite problem. They create chances in abundance – it is no exaggeration to say their quarter-final victory over Greece could have approached double figures – yet are sometimes less than clinical in taking them. Against Greece, that did not matter. Against Italy, it just might, though at least Löw can bring Mario Gomez back into the front line for the semi if he wishes.
Italy have had three days' rest since their quarter-final victory over England, which is something Prandelli has been saying all through the tournament is vital. The Italian coach admitted after fairly ordinary performances against Croatia and Ireland that his team tired easily and tended to fade after an hour, although England were never sufficiently in the game to see if this was a weakness that could be exploited. Nonetheless, if tiredness and low energy levels have been a problem for Italy in Euro 12, being taken to extra time and penalties in their last match could have a draining effect. Especially as Germany dispatched their quarter-final opponents with minimum effort and a few rested players as long ago as Friday night, meaning they have had almost a week to rest and recover, certainly two clear days longer than their opponents.
Properly prepared and younger than most teams at the tournament, Germany will want to find space on the pitch in which to run and attack; Italy will prefer to keep things tight. There may not be a lot of goals in the game, it is a semi-final after all. But though the Italians may have a slight edge in defence, where the Germans have occasionally been sloppy, it appears that in this tournament at least, the perennial underdogs have more attacking bite.
It seems strange referring to Germany as underdogs, especially in a European competition, yet even with the confidence they have demonstrated so far they are bound to be uncomfortably aware of their record against Italy as they go into the semi.
It is a hard one to predict, because Germany have been known to sparkle in the early stages of tournaments before, only to stumble unexpectedly before the end, and it would not be unusual either for Italy to start slowly, unconvincingly even, but show a professional resilience in the later stages when opponents start to thin out. It could be a classic contest, it could be a dour one. But looking at the tournament, rather than the historical record, or either team's reputation and supposed playing style, this seems a contest Germany can win.