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SOCCER

Four soccer teams look to cash in at European Championships

Spain, Germany, Portugal and Italy are seeking to make history with wins in the tournament semifinals.

June 26, 2012|By Kevin Baxter

Defending champion Spain isn't the only soccer team chasing history in the European Championships. Germany, Portugal and Italy also could achieve milestones with wins in Wednesday's and Thursday's semifinals.

Spain, which faces Portugal on Wednesday in Donetsk, Ukraine, is after a record-setting third consecutive major title after winning the 2008 European Championships and the 2010 World Cup. But simply winning its semifinal would make Spain the first team to reach the title game in consecutive European tournaments in 16 years.

Germany was the last to do that. And the Germans, who lost to Spain in the 2008 final and in the 2010 World Cup semifinals, could earn a chance to avenge those results by beating Italy in a semifinal Thursday in Warsaw. A win there would extend Germany's streak for consecutive wins in competitive games to 16. No other national team has won more than 14 in a row.

Yet, Portugal and Italy have hardly been reduced to spoilers, even if both are underdogs in the semifinals.

Portugal, still seeking its first European title, is playing in the semifinals for the third time in the last four tournaments. And though its matchup with Spain is a clash of styles, it's one that could work against the defending champions.

Spain relies on possession and its midfield of Xavi, Xabi Alonso and Andres Iniesta is the best in the world at playing that game. Finishing chances has sometimes been a problem, though, because while Pedro and Cesc Fabregas are proven scorers, forward Fernando Torres has been disappointing. As a result, Coach Vicente del Bosque has been running as many as six men through the midfield and frequently fielding lineups without a recognized striker. Defensively, though, no one is better than Spain, which has given up only one goal in this tournament.

But Portugal's counterattack, led by striker Cristiano Ronaldo, is the perfect antidote to the Spanish style of play since any mistake by the defending champions could lead to one long ball to Ronaldo and a Portuguese goal. Spain may have dominated the rest of the world over the last four years, yet it has won only two of its last 12 games with Portugal, the last 4-0 in a friendly two years ago.

In Thursday's semifinal, Italy will play for a chance to return to the final for the first time since 2000. Italy will have to play a stout defensive game to advance, though, because with only four goals in as many games it has the fewest goals of any semifinalist. Germany has the most with nine.

Plus, Italy is likely to still be fatigued after playing 120 scoreless minutes Sunday before beating England in a penalty-kick shootout in a quarterfinal game.

The Germans are strong in just about every facet of the game. Up front Mario Gomez is tied with Ronaldo for the lead with three goals and Philipp Lahm, the captain, has been splendid in the midfield, making the big tackles and providing the spark to a seamless attack.

Germany may also be the deepest team in the tournament with forward Miroslav Klose and midfielder Marco Reus playing valuable supporting roles and defender Mats Hummels anchoring the back line. The availability of midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger, who has been hobbled by a lingering ankle injury, is about the only question mark.

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

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