Balotelli brace stuns Germany and sends Italy through to Euro 2012 final
Italy stunned highly-fancied Germany with 2-1 win on Thursday night to book a place in the Euro 2012 final against holders Spain. Mario Balotelli was the hero, scoring both Azzurri goals in a commanding Italy performance before Mesut Ozil grabbed a consolation from the penalty spot in injury-time. Cesare Prandelli’s men will now face the world champions in the final on Sunday, and know they are 90 minutes away from winning their first European Championships since 1968.
Germany went into the game as favourites after looking assured and comfortable in winning their first four games of the competition, however Joachim Low changed his starting XI once more to include Toni Kroos in midfield at the expense of Bayern Munich colleague Thomas Muller. Italy welcomed influential central defender Giorgio Chiellini back to their side after the Juventus man recovered from injury, taking his place alongside defensive club team-mates Andrea Barzagli and Leonardo Bonucci.
The Germans started the game well and looked to be going for the kill straight away. A few nervy moments from the usually-assured Gianluigi Buffon had the Italians on the back foot, as Kroos and Sami Khedira had chances to open the scoring for Low’s men. Italy started to get back into the game after the 15-minute mark, with their midfield beginning to get to grips with their opponents. Soon after Balotelli broke the deadlock, heading home from close range after good work down the left by Antonio Cassano. The AC Milan forward turned marker Mats Hummels to deliver an inch-perfect centre that his strike partner nodded home past Manuel Neuer.
The Azzurri doubled their lead shortly after, as questionable German defending allowed Balotelli to beat the offside trap and find himself one-on-one with Neuer. Despite the efforts of the retreating German rearguard the Manchester City star smashed home an unstoppable effort past the German goalkeeper to have the football world sit up and take note.
Low looked to shuffle his pack at the half-time mark, as Marco Reus replaced Lukas Podolski and Miroslav Klose took the place of Mario Gomez. The game opened up in the second period, as Germany started to press forward in the search of an equaliser; Reus’ free-kick was tipped onto the crossbar by Buffon whilst a number of other close chances did not fall the losing side’s way.
As the match went on the German side became more desperate, with Italy’s defence winning everything in the air and their midfielders breaking up play in the centre of the park. Prandelli swapped Balotelli and Cassano for Antonio Di Natale and Alessandro Diamanti, and it was the Azzurri who had chances to wrap the game up. Claudio Marchisio was guilty of spurning two gilt-edged chances whilst Di Natale shot wide after finding himself one-on-one with the German goalkeeper. Federico Balzaretti did have the ball in the opposition net, but it was ruled out for offside.
German launched attack after attack in the dying moments as their opponents looked tired, with Neuer even coming forward for corners and set pieces. Ozil did pull one back from 12 yards in the 92nd minute after an Italian handball but it was too little too late for Low’s men.
The Italian performance was impressive, and the Azzurri could and should really have scored more than their two goals. The return of Chiellini solidified an already stringent backline, whilst Daniele De Rossi continually won the ball back against an ineffective Schweinsteiger and co. Andrea Pirlo continued his Euro 2012 masterclass from the centre of the park, controlling possession and showcasing an extraordinary range of passing.
Italy were certainly not expected to make it to the final, but will go into Sunday’s game full of confidence. Prandelli’s charges have already drawn 1-1 with Spain in the group stages, and as such will know that a replica of the performance, determination and tactics shown to oust Germany will give them every chance of lifting the trophy.