Germany laid Loew by Balotelli
EURO 2012 SEMI-FINAL Germany 1 Italy 2:ITALY’S hex over their great rivals in competitive games was no easier to understand at the final whistle last night than it was before this remarkable encounter at the National Stadium in Warsaw but critically for Joachim Loew’s young side, it is no longer something, as he had suggested, they simply read about history in books.
Just as they were two years ago in South Africa, his remarkably energetic side were knocked out at the semi-final stage of a major tournament by a team displaying far superior know-how.
Their inexperience, it seems, got the better of them in the end although youth played its part spectacularly for Cesare Prandelli’s side, too, with 21-year-old Mario Balotelli, the youngest player on the pitch, scoring the two outstanding first-half goals that left the Germans desperately chasing a comeback that was to prove beyond them.
By half-time the scale of the shock being experienced by the Germans was apparent not only on the pitch but also on the big screens inside the stadium which started to show pictures of their supporters looking distraught and bewildered with increasingly regularity.
Loew’s side had actually made the better start and should have been one, possibly two, goals ahead after a quarter of an hour with Andrea Pirlo clearing off the line from Mats Hummels just five minutes in after Gianluigi Buffon had made a hash of a corner, and Andrea Barzagli deflected the ball wide not long after when it might just as easily have rolled into the bottom corner.
At that stage German pressure, even on Buffon deep inside his own area on a couple of occasions, was having the desired effect. The Italians were enjoying a reasonable amount of possession but struggling to do anything terribly constructive with it. Pirlo kept himself out of trouble well enough but his passing initially had to be a good deal less ambitious here.
Suddenly, though, that changed 20 minutes in when Mario Gomez, having closed the midfielder down once, then decided to let him be when Pirlo got the ball back.
A moment later the 33-year-old picked out Antonio Cassano down the left and, having spun away from a poor challenge from Hummels – who had been having a tournament to remember before this night to forget – and Jerome Boateng, he crossed for Balotelli, whose rise to head home was scarcely impeded by Holger Badstuber.
The Germans looked immediately rattled. This was the first time they had trailed in a competitive game since the third place play-off in South Africa.
The number of unforced errors soared; Mesut Ozil and Gomez both wasted opportunities.
The Italians, on the other hand, started to exert more control over things and created further half chances of their own.
Still, their second goal came out of almost nothing, after Buffon had simply done well to parry another corner from the left – the upshot of his fine save from Sami Khedira – as far as Riccardo Montolivo, who promptly sent Balotelli racing away with a superb ball over the top.
The Manchester City striker had not fared well at this tournament in such promising situations but this time his finish, as Lahm attempted to make the block, was magnificent and Manuel Neuer didn’t move, save for an arm thrust forlornly into the air to his left.
Looking utterly dazed, the Germans then stumbled their way to the break and, with Miroslav Klose and Marco Reus on for the ineffective Podolski and Gomez, returned from it looking at least like men with a plan again.
Having one, however, and executing it against an Italian side now in command proved very different things. Reus and Lahm passed up chances to get their side back into things before Buffon was forced into a cracking save from a Reus free conceded by Bonucci.
The defender had been superb, though, when depriving Klose of the chance to shoot moments earlier.
It was enthralling stuff with the Germans chasing the game but the Italians defending well and exerting more and more influence over its rhythm and occasionally going close to adding a third through Balotelli and, twice, Claudio Marchisio.
Along the way, Cesar Prandelli’s men sought to disrupt the pattern of their opponent’s play and for the most part they succeeded.
By the time Alessandro Diamanti, with the whole of central midfield to himself, sent Antonio Di Natale racing clear only for the striker to fire into the side-netting, it was beginning to look as likely Italy would get a third as it was that Germany would take a significant step towards saving themselves.
They certainly should have halved the deficit late on but Reus was ponderous as he lined up his shot on the edge of the six-yard box, Federico Balzaretti wonderfully precise with his challenge.
Eventually, when they did score, from a penalty conceded by Balzareti for a slightly sloppy handball, Ozil looked as though he was shortening his run up so as to save a second or two. He scored it well but the seconds were about to run out anyway. Italy had done enough.