This feature is a part of RETEUROSPECTIVE
Italy vanquished Germany 2-1 as they extended their unbeaten streak over the old enemy in major tournaments to eight games – and half a century.
In a pulsating semi-final encounter in Warsaw, it was Mario Balotelli who put in-form Germany to the sword with a well-taken brace, as the divisive Italian striker finally announced himself on the international stage after a strong domestic campaign with English champions Manchester City.
A contentious figure for many, capable of oscillating alarmingly from the mesmeric to the infuriating, Balotelli repaid coach Cesare Prandelli’s faith in him, who persisted with the enigmatic forward in place of the experienced Antonio Di Natale alongside Antonio Cassano in Italy’s forward line.
It was an inspired decision from the wily Prandelli and one that was vindicated as quickly as the 20th minute of a contest that had been an understandably cagey affair. Collecting the ball on the left wing, Cassano – another player for whom his recalcitrant nature has oft proved an obstacle to his own success – nimbly escaped the attentions of Mats Hummels and lofted in a cross that a rampant Balotelli met with a thundering header.
One-nil down, Germany’s lack of commitment to defending was matched only by their fervent dedication to attacking. Barzagli nearly put the ball past his own ‘keeper following a mix-up from a cross, before Sami Khedira had a rasping half-volley thwarted by an evergreen Buffon. Their lacklustre defending was to be their undoing again before the half was out, however, when Riccardo Montolivo lofted a simple ball over the top of a static German defence to put Balotelli through on goal.
Thrumming with confidence, he needed but one touch to steady the ball before lashing a venomous strike past a hapless Neuer. Off came the shirt in a defiant celebration; face locked in a glowering expression, an emphatic challenge to all those who had questioned him. His doubters were quelled indeed.
Accordingly, Joachim Low’s hand was forced; Miroslav Klose and Marco Reus took to the field in the second half as Germany sought that extra sliver of explosiveness going forward, which the Italians, in Balotelli, seemed to possess in abundance. Reus offered guile and pace, Klose provided instinct inside the 18-yard box, but Chiellini, Barzagli and Bonucci were customarily resolute.
Typically so efficient and uncompromising, Germany, who had come into the game having not once fallen behind throughout the entire tournament, struggled to contain Italy’s suffocating midfield. Unable to stifle the artistic Pirlo thanks to the impregnable bulwark of Daniele De Rossi, Claudio Marchisio and Riccardo Montolivo, Germany fell victim time and again to the Juventus playmaker’s raking long balls for the effervescent Cassano and Balotelli.
As such, with the game slipping away, Germany grew increasingly desperate, coming closest to forcing a route back into the game from Reus’ well-struck free-kick, which was only kept out by the supreme athleticism of a Gianluigi Buffon that never seems to age. His wild-eyed, fist-pumping celebration was indicative of the importance of the save. The Italians knew that if they could continue to stifle Reus, Muller and Klose, victory would soon be in sight.
The German persistence inevitably left them open to the counter, as orchestrated by the magisterial Pirlo, who twice laid on chances for Claudio Marchisio that the Juventus midfielder should have finished. Instead, with Balotelli substituted in the 70th minute for Di Natale, Italy would settle for their two-goal haul, but it was one which was threatened by a late Germany lifeline thanks to a Mesut Ozil penalty.
In the 92nd minute, Balzaretti handled in the box and the Real Madrid playmaker duly dispatched the spot-kick. It was too little, too late, though, as the Italians refused to relinquish possession cheaply from the resultant kick-off.
Though Germany came into the tournament hot favourites behind reigning World and European champions Spain, their exit at the semi-final stage should not come as a surprise to anyone with a keen interest in history. The Germans have not beaten Italy in eight fixtures at major tournaments, stretching back to the 1962 World Cup.
Duly deserved, Cesare Prandelli’s men rectified the humiliating group-stage exit of the 2010 World Cup by reaching a final nobody really expected them to reach. Though a sterner test awaits, on that night in Warsaw, nothing could stop Italy and Balotelli’s triumphant procession.
By Josh Butler @joshisbutler90