Two years ago, when Germany and Spain met in the final of Euro 2008, nobody expected Germany to win. That was a magnificent Spain side that played tremendous possession football and, by beating Italy in the quarterfinal, had overcome at least some of its mental demons. Spain beat the Germans 1-0, but it was one of the most emphatic 1-0 wins you're likely to see. Germany was made to look sluggish and lumbering, chasing haplessly as Spain's five-man midfield rotated the ball at a bewildering, almost cruel, pace.
Spain has lost just twice since then, and yet going into Wednesday's World Cup semifinal, it is Germany that looks like the in-form team. Spain has produced its best passing football only in patches, while Germany has been devastating on the counterattack, destroying both Argentina and England. The question it has yet to answer, though, is what it does if it doesn't score the first goal, something it was gifted by both its last two opponents.
It is not to demean the Germans' achievements in this tournament to say their greatest ability is the way they take advantages of opponents' errors. To suggest, as some have done, that this is somehow a fresh-faced return to the Total Footballing West Germany of the early 1970s, though, is misguided. Bastian Schweinsteiger has excelled in the holding role, relishing the laxity of international defenses to advance with the ball 40-50 yards at a time, a luxury that is impossible in the Champions League and even the Bundesliga. He and Sami Khedira did a fine job of stifling Argentina's Lionel Messi, or at least restricting him to relatively unthreatening areas, and it was hard to avoid the thought that Germany's passing from that deep midfield area might not have been so rapid had Michael Ballack been fit. His injury may have come as a blessing.