WARSAW: Mario Balotelli punished some appalling defending to fire both goals as magisterial Italy defeated Germany 2-1 in their Euro 2012 semi-final in the Polish capital. The Azzurri thus face holders Spain in Sunday’s final in a repeat of their opening meeting in Gdansk three weeks ago.
As this writer told you in these columns back on June 10: “If Spain and Italy follow up their 1-1 draw in the city of Solidarity by finishing first and second in Group C then they may yet meet again in the Final in Kyiv on July 1. That, judging from the class of ‘merely’ an opening encounter, would not betray Euro 2012.”
And so it will be.
Italy earned their deserved reward for making the sharper start in Warsaw while the Germans paid a fatal penalty for trying to adapt their game to counter the Azzurri in general and playmaker Andrea Pirlo in particular.
Germany had been runners-up to Spain in the last European Championship and to reach the final in Kiev they needed to turn history on its head since they had never beaten Italy in a major competition. That jinx still holds.
One other odd fact: Italy were one match from the final having won only one match previously, their group game against the Republic of Ireland. Cesare Prandelli’s men had drawn both their other first round games, against Spain and Croatia, and had then needed penalties to leave England behind in the quarter-finals.
Germany almost scored in only the sixth miniute when a close-range prod by Mats Hummels after a left-wing corner was cleared off the goal-line by Pirlo. That was one of the few moments in the opening exchanges when Pirlo found himself free of his shadow, Toni Kroos.
Hummels shared the blame for the Italian goal in the 19th minute. Fit-again Giorgio Chiellini found Antonio Cassano up the left wing and the Milan forward turned Hummels and crossed to the near post where flat-footed Holger Badstuber allowed Balotelli to head home from close range.
Germany, lacking any of the conviction of their relentless winning march through the qualifiers and the first round, took heart when Sami Khedira had a 25m volley pushed wide by Gigi Buffon in the Italian goal. But that was merely the prelude to an Italian counter-attack which saw a wonderful through pass from Riccardo Montolivo thundered home by Balotelli for his, and his team’s, second goal.
The introductions of Marco Reus and Miroslav Klose at half-time sparked Germany into raising the tempo and pushing Italy back into their own penalty area. Their movement was slicker, their passing sharper and their intent clear.
Italy reacted by bringing on Alessandro Diamanti, whose penalty finished off England, for the excellent but already tiring Cassano. Diamanti, after only a few minutes, constructed a rapier-like counter-attack which ended with Giorgio Marchisio firing inches wide.
The German storm, it appeared, was blowing itself out. They had no option but to gamble: Thomas Muller came on in attack in place of poor rightback Jerome Boateng. That merely left them vulnerable on the counter-attack and Marchisio and Antonio Di Natale – Balotelli’s substitute – missed an even better chance.
Their punishment was to concede a stoppage-time penalty which Ozil converted after a handling offence by Federico Balzaretti. Too little, too late.
As in 1982 when they won the World Cup (against Germany, in Spain), as in 2006 when they won the World Cup (in Germany), so Italy have again shrugged off all manner of matchfixing corruption back home to attack the peak of international football.
All they need do now, in Kiev on Sunday, is beat the reigning world and European champions.
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