Just as last nights semi-final was a battle between Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi for the mantle of “World’s Greatest Player”, this semi-final was a battle of the Mario’s.
Germany’s Gomez versus Italy’s Balotelli. Both had excelled for their respective clubs last season, with Gomez scoring 41 times for Bayern Munich, and Balotelli hitting a modest-by-comparison yet still respectable 19.
In the end, against that run of statistics, it was Manchester City’s bad boy who stunned Germany and sent Italy into their first Euro final in 12 years with 2 great goals, and also extend their incredible unbeaten streak over their rivals in the process, having drawn four and won three of their previous encounters.
To think, at the beginning of the tournament, manager Prandelli said he’d have no problem if Italy pulled out of Euro 2012 in the wake of yet another match fixing scandal to hit the country.
Most gave them little chance of even progressing from Group C, as they were paired in the same group as Croatia and Spain. Now they are contesting the final of Euro 2012 against the team they held to a 1-1 draw in their first group game.
What a turn around.
They didn’t have it all their own way though, having dominated large swathes of the game, taking a commanding 2-0 lead into the final minutes, they then had to endure a nervous last few moments as Ozil scored from the spot.
Germany started the game brightly, and Hummels had a shot cleared off the line by the evergreen Pirlo whilst Khedira had a volleyed effort tipped over the bar by Buffon.
In between these efforts though, Balotelli placed a header past Neuer to open proceedings after getting on the end of a pinpoint Antonio Cassano cross. He then doubled their lead 10 minutes before half time as a Riccardo Montolivo pass cut the German defence to ribbons, leaving the hitman through on goal with Neuer.
If there were any doubts that he’d fluff his lines, there needn’t have been, as the ball bounced kindly for him, allowing him to wallop the ball past the goalkeeper with such aplomb that the net almost split in half.
Germany responded by bringing off Gomez for Klose and Podolski for Reus at half time, and the latter had an almost instant impact as he forced an early save from Buffon.
As expected, Germany started the second half in much more progressive fashion, and though they dominated early possession, they failed to really trouble Buffon’s goal after that.
Just before the hour mark, Diamante, the man who broke England’s hearts in the quarter final penalty shootout, replaced Cassano.
Reus continued to make a positive impact on the game when on 61 minutes he thumped a freekick at Buffon, who just managed to tip the ball onto the bar and out for a corner.
Substitute Diamante could have hammered the final nail into Germany’s coffin on 67 minutes though, when he was teed up on the edge of the area, only to fizz his effort just wide of Neuer’s post.
Two goal hero Balotelli was then wisely substituted, having picked up a yellow card for taking his shirt off after netting his second. Di Natale replaced him.
Even after replacing their goalscorer, it was the Italians who looked most likely to bag a third. They defended resolutely and limited their opposition to barely a single chance at goal whilst always looking dangerous on the break.
Marchisio should have got the killer goal fifteen minutes from time, as he picked up the ball in the Germany penalty area, jinked it round a defender, and then dragged his shot wide from 6 yards.
Germany by now looked flat and bereft of chances to haul themselves back into the game as the Italians continued to frustrate them. The ball was headed down to Klose on the edge of the Italian box, but his resulting effort belied his surname as it sailed over the bar.
As Germany committed numbers forward, they looked incredibly fragile at the back, and Italy could have scored three or four. It almost became a question of when, not if they could score again.
First, Di Natale found himself through on goal after yet another pass found its way through the German defence, but he sent his shot against the side-netting.
Federico Balzaretti then had a goal chalked off for offside ten minutes from time as the German defence capitulated yet again.
It was the defender though who gave Germany an unexpected way back into the game as he handled in the penalty area. Ozil duly converted from the spot, and whilst Italy had to endure a nervy end having exerted so much dominance over proceedings, it proved to be too little, too late.
Few can begrudge them this victory, and as 16 teams have now been whittled down to just two, Euro 2012 is a mere 3 days away from its thrilling climax.
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