Italy v Germany, June 28, 7.45pm
28 June ~ Italian journalists have been applauding coach Cesare Prandelli and his players this week as they take to their seats for press conferences. In Rome this afternoon, they are putting up a big screen in the Piazza del Popolo, ready for tonight's game. Italy, for the first time since 2006, is falling back in love with the Azzurri. Impressive at times in qualifying, off-field dramas and injury woes meant that before the tournament most Italian supporters simply wanted to see a decent showing and avoid recent embarrassments on the international stage.
Instead, the win against England has been widely seen as vindication that the national team, and Prandelli in particular, know what they're doing. The former Fiorentina coach has been typically serene in the run-up to the semi-final with Germany. Bar a few strong words on Tuesday about UEFA's scheduling of the quarter-finals – playing one game a night to maximise television coverage and thus allowing tonight's opponents an extra 48 hours recuperation time – Prandelli has been careful to take the pressure off his players without recourse to the type of siege mentality so beloved of Italy managers in the past.
This more relaxed, adult ambiance prompted Andrea Pirlo to take his deft cucchaio penalty against England. The midfielder's confident spot-kick was a tipping point, not just in the shootout, but also in the Italian public's belief in the team. Prandelli is expected to start with an attack-mined 4-3-1-2 formation, featuring a back four of Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci, Andrea Barzagli and Ignazio Abate, with Daniele De Rossi, Pirlo and Claudio Marchisio in the middle, and Riccardo Montolivo again behind a front pair of Mario Balotelli and Antonio Cassano (or possibly Alessandro Diamanti, depending on the Milan man's fitness).
Montolivo was in impressive form against England; the recent Milan signing replaced the injured (and fairly ineffective) Thiago Motta and linked up well between Italy's impressive midfield and less productive strikers, a role some Italian commentators have dubbed the "false trequartista". Much has been made over the past few days about the former Fiorentina man's Teutonic roots; his mother is from Schleswig-Holstein and he is a fluent German speaker.
Germany have a rotten record against Italy. They have never beaten them in an international tournament and are still smarting from losing the World Cup semi-final in Dortmund six years ago. They do not, however, appear to be the types to fear history or statistics, despite the Italian media's best efforts.
Tonight will be tough and, there's no denying that two days extra rest is quite the bonus when you have played four games in two weeks. Whatever happens in Warsaw, Italy have reminded the rest of the world that they still possess the technique, tactical nous and personality to control play, dictate pace and create chances – finishing them is a different matter, of course.
The Italian football association made a point of standing by their coach on the eve of the final group game, against Ireland. "Fearless" declared the front page of this morning's Gazzetta dello Sport. Really, Italy have nothing to lose. Matthew Barker