This feature is a part of RETEUROSPECTIVE
Germany booked their place in the Euro 2016 semi-finals in a match devoid of quality but, nevertheless, blessed in thrills.
Italy started the match brightly, dispossessing Germany on multiple occasions as they looked to capitalise on their high-energy start. Stefano Sturaro blazed wide from 20 yards with the Italians’ first real effort on goal.
It took Germany ten minutes to settle down, as they slowly built their rhythm with long passages of possession. Joshua Kimmich was particularly active on the right-hand side of the pitch, yet Germany failed to create any clear-cut chances as the half progressed. Instead, it became a stop-start affair, with both sides sustaining injuries and disrupting each other’s attempts at establishing a foothold in the game.
Bastian Schweinsteiger, who came out of international retirement to play for Germany in the competition, had a headed goal disallowed, after shoving Mattia De Sciglio in the build-up; the best of a series of half-chances for either side. The game resembled a cagey stalemate, with neither side in the ascendancy despite the vast quality of players on the pitch.
This almost changed on the stroke of half-time, as both sides had their best chances of the match. At one end, the ball pinballed around the Italian box to land directly at Thomas Müller’s feet, but the German marksman scuffed his shot to force a tame save from Gianluigi Buffon.
Italy went a lot closer at the other end of the pitch. A long ball came to Emanuele Giaccherini, on the left-hand side of the box, whose cutback eventually found its way to the feet of Sturaro. The midfielder’s shot was crucially deflected by Jérôme Boateng onto the post; great defending preventing what might have been an almost-certain goal for the Italians.
The first half finished 0-0, as both sides entered the dressing rooms at the interval. The game had been a tense affair but certainly not as memorable as the classic between the two sides a decade earlier, in the 2006 World Cup.
The second half picked up where the game had left off, with neither side dominating. The first major chance fell to Germany on the counter-attack. Müller received the ball and placed a shot towards the left-hand side of the net, which rounded Buffon. However, Alessandro Florenzi rescued Italy with a heroic goal-line clearance, a world-class piece of defending to keep the scoreline goalless.
As the half progressed, Germany slowly emerged as favourites with periods of confident possession, albeit creating few chances to assert their dominance.
Finally, this changed in the 65th minute, as Germany took the lead following a spell of continued meaningful possession. Mario Gómez surged down the left and crossed in, with Mesut Özil eventually picking up the ball and firing it home on the half-volley. The German midfielder did brilliantly to read the path of the deflected ball and rifle it into the net past a stranded Buffon.
Özil then turned almost-provider, as Germany nearly made it two. Delightfully threading the ball over the defence to Gómez, the striker’s shot from close range deflected off of Giorgio Chiellini, forcing a brilliant reaction save from Buffon. Despite his 38 years, the Juventus goalkeeper continued to show why he is still one of the world’s finest shot-stoppers.
For all of Germany’s attacking intent, they were undone by a moment of calamitous defending at the other end of the pitch. A routine corner was blocked by Boateng’s hand, the centre-back inexplicably raising his arms like a flailing starfish to deny Chiellini from getting near the ball. His baffled teammates watched on as Leonardo Bonucci passed the ball into the net from the resulting penalty, levelling the scores at 1-1.
The second half ended with a spell of sustained Italian pressure, but Germany held on to see the game into extra-time. A stern team-talk from coach Joachim Löw seemed to be effective as they emerged with more confidence, retaining the ball and taking the pressure off their defenders.
It wasn’t until the second half of extra-time, however, that they finally carved out a clear-cut chance of retaking the lead. A deflected cross from Schweinsteiger fell to Julian Draxler, whose overhead kick just cleared the top of the goal.
Germany continued to press as Italy tired, but it was to no avail as the game went to penalties. Simone Zaza was brought on for Chiellini as Italy looked to take up the gauntlet.
The shootout began routinely, with both sides scoring their first penalties. It was then the turn of the newly introduced Zaza, whom coach Antonio Conte had brought on especially for the occasion. Much to Conte’s despair, the striker produced a penalty that will be sure to feature on every YouTube compilation of comical penalty misses for years to come. Jogging up to the ball with a curious, exaggerated, high-kneed run-up, he blazed it high and wide, to the pained chagrin of the Italian fans behind the goal.
Müller missed the next penalty, albeit in less spectacular circumstances, as Italy went 2-1 up; Özil then missing his own. A shambolic series of missed penalties from either side eventually brought the scores to 5-5, with Matteo Darmian stepping up for Italy. His weak effort was comfortably saved by Manuel Neuer ,before Jonas Hector fired home to secure a 6-5 win for Germany.
It was a penalty shootout that did little to evidence the presence of composure among the players featured, but Germany were fortunately let-off by Italy. Despite missing three penalties, the world champions are through to the semi-finals, where they will face either France or Iceland.
Germany will need to deliver a much better performance if they are to beat an in-form France side, should the hosts continue their fine form and defeat Iceland. They are fortunate to have a world-class custodian in Neuer, who showed his class yet again with a man of the match performance, cementing his status as the world’s very best shot-stopper.
By James Caple @CapesJE