The second semi-final. Germany who were on form and flying against Italy, who England took all the way to penalties, surely only one outcome right? England had horrible problems keeping the ball, but the Germans wouldn’t surrender possession like England did. For Italy they had grown stronger as the competition had gone on after an excellent start against Spain in the group stage, a win would see a repeat of that fixture in the final.
Germany versus Italy
The game promised so much, but unlike Spain against Portugal the night before, this game actually delivered and I think it’s the best game I’ve seen so far, delivering quality open attacking football from both sides for the first time in the knock-out stages of the competition.
Italy kept a similar team and the same system that they had used to such good effect against England. Giorgio Chiellini was fit to return at left-back, with Abate struggling with injury and Maggio suspended, Federico Balzaretti switched to right-back.Riccardo Montolivo kept his place and it was Mario Balotelli and Antonio Cassano leading the line again.
Germany switched their team around, this time Toni Kroos coming into the side. Mario Gomez and Lukas Podolski were reinstated having been left out for the victory over Greece but there was no place again for Thomas Muller. I was surprised and disappointed there was also no place for Marco Reus who had impressed me against Greece but was more than happy to make do with watching Mesut Ozil.
Germany started well, they were playing with a quick tempo and putting Italy under pressure, after gaining a corner the ball was cleared off the line by Andrea Pirlo with a suspicion of hand ball. I watched the endless replays and I couldn’t be sure, it could have hit his hand but probably only slightly and in passing. It would have been a harsh decision.
The game was surprisingly open, with neither side doing a very good job of stopping the other team playing. Andrea Pirlo was again dictating play and finding space, it seemed at times Kroos was trying to pick him up and was drifting away from the right. Ozil would then come wide to cover for him, but often this left Germany looking a bit lopsided and meant that the only attacking threat on the right was Jerome Boateng; getting forward from fullback and he never looked comfortable in the final third.
Then the game changed. Mats Hummels got far too tight to Antonio Cassano allowing him to turn and get free, he produced a beautifully weighted cross which beat Holger Badstuber in the flight like a leg spinner and allowed Mario Balotelli to head home. The goal showed just how dangerous Italy could be in attack and I was minded of how well and at times how lucky England had been to keep them out for 120 minutes in the quarter-final.
Now the pattern of play changed, Italy sat a bit deeper. It wasn’t that they were happy at 1-0, more that they knew Germany would come back at them. The problem for Germany was that in doing so they opened themselves up to counter-attacks that they simply could not deal with. 10 minutes later one of these, from a German corner led to the second goal.
Having been beaten in the air for the first goal, Holger Badstuber was beaten by movement for the second. Instead of covering the run of Balotelli he stepped up trying to play offside, leaving Philipp Lahm exposed to a ball over the top, Balotelli came onto it and with purpose, power and conviction absolutely smashed it into the top corner. It was suddenly 2-0 to Italy and the prospect of Germany being eliminated seemed real for the first time. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise as it turns out Germany had never beaten Italy in a tournament.
Gomez and Podolski departed at half time as both had been virtually anonymous, Miroslav Klose and Marco Reus were their replacements.
The game was open, I hate to say it again, but it was mad. I mean, it was ludicrously open. It was 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year open. There were so, so many chances, but no goals. Germany set up camp in the Italian half and although they kept on putting the ball into the box and trying to link up with intricate little passing moves around the edge of the area they simply couldn’t find a way through.
At the other end Italy countered again and again exploiting the space being left by Germany expertly, but every time they had the chance to put the game to bed with a third goal something got in the way. Antonio Di Natale being caught offside far too often after his introduction. For every chance they wasted it just made me wonder, if the Germans grabbed a goal would the Italians come to rue these misses?
Germany went close when Reus bent a freekick over the wall at pace, but it was too near Buffon who was able to tip it onto the bar and keep the two goal lead intact. Then Ozil finally created something, surging to the by-line with incredible acceleration and cutting the ball back for Sami Khedira who couldn’t sort his feet out in time to manage an effort on goal. Ozil had been on the periphery of the game, often drifting into wide areas rather than holding a central position, the Germans simply couldn’t get him involved enough and much of the game had sadly passed him by.
It got to the stage where Manuel Neuer was playing as sweeper and coming up for every set piece. Bastian Schweinsteiger was now playing right-back and was finding space and had possession of the ball far more than he enjoyed in a central area, but Germany just couldn’t find a goal and were incredibly lucky not to have conceded a third themselves. Neuer heading away and intercepting Italain through-balls close to the half-way line was great entertainment, but I can’t imagine how it must have felt to watch as a German, heart in mouth doesn’t do it justice.
Finally their goal came, albeit far too late. The pressure told and a handball allowed Mesut Ozil to stroke home from the spot in his own inimitable style. But the game was up, there was no time to find a second, the game could offer no more excitement, it would have been too much to take, but that didn’t stop me from wanting another German goal, just see more of the wonderful football that had been played.
Deja vu as the final takes us back to the group stage
Italy exploited the weaknesses in the German side and had a perfect game plan. Germany got their team and tactics wrong and were perhaps over-confident but it was still a brilliant, breath taking game. It was open, their was endless quality, good goals, seemingly hundreds of chances and it was played in a good spirit. Certainly the best game of the competition.
So with Germany gone, this leaves Jamie standing alone in the prediction stakes, he was the only person who went for Italy to win and rather bizarrely nobody went for Spain. Spain versus Italy, not a bad final, it was a decent game in the group stage. Spain played without a striker and Italy showed class through the passing of Andrea Pirlo, which is pretty much the story of the two teams in this tournament.
Highlight of the game: Mario Balotelli’s second goal and celebration. He’s a player of incredible ability and when he delivers it nearly always looks spectacular. I heard that someone on TalkSport said he wouldn’t get into the England side. Obviously I wasn’t listening to TalkSport because people on it often seem to chat complete bollocks like that but I saw it tweeted. Balotelli is a character and he’s unpredictable. He can do something unexpected, sometimes in a good way, sometimes bad. Too often English players are too predictable, too boring, too conservative and have the flair coached out of them.
When Balotelli smashed in his second goal, chances are an English striker would have made sure to get it on target, work the keeper, bring a good save out of Neuer. If we want to make finals then we need more players who are willing to blast it 30 yards over the bar as Balotelli has on occasions during the tournament, on the understanding that when their chance comes in a big game, they can also find the top corner with a rocket which takes you to the final. Alan Hansen criticised Balotelli, Alan Shearer said he still had everything to prove and I agree to some extent, he’s still only 21 and he’s a live wire. When you see his ability you want him to produce it more consistently, but asking for consistency means that you don’t understand a player like Mario Balotelli and that’s not only a problem with BBC pundits but also to a larger extent, English football.