KEIR RADNEDGE in BORDEAUX: When the world’s two finest goalkeepers went head to head in a penalty shootout there could be only one winner. Given German football sporting history, that happy man was always destined to be Manuel Neuer.
Thus the great Gigi Buffon and his Italy had their dream of Euro 2016 glory ended painfully, bitterly, just when they were starting to believe it might be about to come true. Yet Germany deserved their luck for playing the more enterprising football, even in extra time when the fear factor can kill creativity.
Germany won the shootout 6-5 in sudden death after 18 kicks and following a 1-1 extra-time draw secured by a 65th-minute goal from Mesut Ozil balanced by a Leonardo Bonucci penalty 10 minutes later.
Neuer then saved from both Bonucci and, finally, Matteo Darmian in the shootout before Jonas Hector rammed the winning strike beyond Italy’s captain.
“That really was dramatic,” said Neuer. “Not only have we finally succeded in beating Italy in a knockout game but we also reached the semi-finals. There were so many players shooting penalties. I’ve never seen anything like it. This was a war of nerves which I – and we – will remember for ever.”
Buffon, who saved a kick from Thomas Muller, considered defeat “a huge regret.” He added: “It was shocking what went on, losing on penalties even though Germany missed three of their first five. Not to go on and win after that is inexplicable.”
The narrow margin of victory summed up the balance between the nations. Germany could point to four World Cups and three continental titles while Italy could counter with four World Cups and one European title.
But on this occasion Germany deserved to end their Italian hoodoo and go forward to a semi-final against hosts France or Iceland in Marseille’s Stade Velodrome on Thursday. Simply, they played the more progressive and positive football throughout the game.
Remarkably, the Germans had never defeated Italy in eight previous meetings in major tournaments, though they did win 4-1 in March this year in a warm-up friendly between the teams who would go on to boast the two best defences in the tournament. Germany had not conceded any goals in their four previous matches while Italy had ‘lost’ only one.
Italy should have come into the quarter-final full of confidence after dethroning champions Spain 2-0 in the second round. Victory, however, had come at heavy cost and not only in terms of fatigue. Midfield fulcrum Daniele De Rossi had been injured during the game and was ruled out while his usual deputy, Brazilian-born Thiago Motta, was suspended.
Marco Parolo took over the anchor role with Stefano Sturaro coming into midfield.
German coach Joachim Low sought to negate Italy’s five-man midfield by switching to a back three of his own and pushing Joshua Kimmich forward up the right wing.
His stability strategy was then upset early on Sami Khedira suffered a recurrence of a thigh injury in a tangle with Giorgio Chiellini and had to be substituted by Bastian Schweinsteiger. Yet the Manchester United veteran, having reclaimed the skipper’s armband from Neuer, played an outstanding captain’s role throughout.
A lengthy sparring contest exploded belatedly into life just before half-time when Mario Gomez headed over the bar and Buffon saved cleanly from Muller after the ball had ricocheted to and fro across the Italian penalty box. Italy immediately ran away on the attack themselves: Emanuele Giaccherini’s left-wing cross exposed the Germany defence but Sturaro’s shot flew for a corner.
Germany began the second half by pressing higher up the pitch and were rewarded in the 65th minute. Gomez opened the way for Hector to race to the byline and cross so the inrushing Mesut Ozil could sweep the ball up into the net.
The lead did not last long. In the 76th minute Boateng was penalised for hands – arms, really, as he jumped for a cross – and Leonardo Bonucci put away a decisive spot kick. So to extra time then the penalties saga with its predictable denouement.