A Mario Balotelli inspired Italy overcame Germany in the semi-finals of Euro 2012 to set-up a final date with reigning champions Spain on Sunday.
Germany headed into the game as favorites and with good reason. Joachim Löw’s side were on a terrific 15 game unbeaten run. His young side were brimming with confidence and enthusiasm and experts pointed out that this was probably the best chance for Germany to get rid of their Italy jinx. Indeed, the Germans have never beaten the Azzurri in a competitive competition and against an Italy side that had just played 120 minutes of football against England, with a relatively lower rest period; the odds were in Germany’s favor.
Cesare Prandelli’s Italy weren’t considered favorites for Euro 2012, despite his team going unbeaten in the qualifiers but on a night where everything fell into place for the manager, he now stares at the reality of being crowned European champions. The Azzurri started off slowly with draws against Spain and Croatia but picked up the pace with wins over Ireland and England. However, Germany was going to be their toughest test yet with few giving them any sort of hope against the Mannschaft, who were the only team to win all their games in the cup so far.
The Line-ups: Joachim Low’s Tactical Gamble
Germany (4-2-3-1): Neuer; Boateng, Hummels, Badstuber, Lahm; Schweinsteiger, Khedira; Ozil, Kroos, Podolski; Gomez
Jogi Low has been known to keep his cards close to his chest and threw up a rather surprising line-up against the Italians. In came, Bayern Munich’s Toni Kroos, who was perhaps the most shocking inclusion in the starting eleven. The intent was clear, Low tried to adapt his formation to counter Italy’s style of play and attempt to neutralize Italy’s maestro, Andrea Pirlo’s influence.
Italy (4-3-1-2): Buffon; Balzaretti, Barzagli, Bonucci, Chiellini; Marchisio, Pirlo, De Rossi; Montolivo; Cassano, Balotelli
Cesare Prandelli stuck with his 4-3-1-2 formation, one that served him well throughout the qualifiers and also Italy’s previous two games. Giorgio Chiellini returned to the line-up and was used as a left-back, a role he has played in this season with Juventus. Ignazio Abate’s fitness issues meant that Federico Balzaretti was employed at right-back.
Cesare Prandelli Gets It Right
Prandelli had a few questions with regard to his attack to deal with heading into this game. For a team with the firepower of Antonio Cassano, Mario Balotelli and Antonio Di Natale within their ranks, Italy were misfiring. Having dominated possession in most of their games and carving out plenty of chances, Italy’s strikers just couldn’t seem to find the back of the net from open play. The goals against Croatia and Ireland had all resulted from set-pieces; the lack of a creative force and a clinical striker was evident.
Prandelli faced a mini selection dilemma of sorts as he had to pick two out of Di Natale, Cassano, Diamanti and Balotelli to start against Germany. And the choice he made, proved to be the smart one as both his enigmatic strikers Balotelli and Cassano put in arguably their best displays in an Azzurri jersey. Italy stuck to their game-plan right from the outset and it paid dividends with two brilliant first-half Balotelli strikes which secured the result for the Italians. In a tournament where Italy’s strikers were anything but clinical, on the night they proved to be just what was needed.
Another pressing concern for Prandelli was the lack of a classic trequartista in his side. Montolivo was deployed in the hole in the qualifiers but rarely did anything of note and was never convincing. Another option was Alessandro Diamanti who impressed in his cameo against England. But, Prandelli stuck by the player with whom he worked with at Fiorentina. Montolivo has his critics but managed to silence them with a strong display. Not only did he manage to create Balotelli’s second goal with an exquisite aerial ball, he also constantly pressurized the German midfield, limiting their time and space on the ball. Montolivo proved to be one of the most valuable players on the night for the Italians.
Jogi Löw’s Gamble Backfires
A glance at the line-up set out by Löw suggested that he clearly wanted to shut down Italy’s most vital area – the midfield. While the Germans did start off brightly, threatening Buffon in the initial stages, they slowed down as the first half progressed. The same can be said of the second period in which the Germans came out all guns blazing only to slowly fade away.
For the most part, they couldn’t maintain their direct, attacking game and struggled to keep a hold of the ball. The inclusion of Kroos meant Ozil was displaced into the right hand side of midfield. Mario Gomez looked isolated in attack without the presence of the Real Madrid midfielder behind him. Toni Kroos was tasked with the job of cancelling out Andrea Pirlo. Easier said than done though and with the kind of form Italy’s no. 21 is in, it remains a herculean task that is yet to be mastered in this tournament.
Daniele De Rossi was immense for the Italians while Claudio Marchisio’s endless running meant the Germans had little or no room to breathe in midfield. Andrea Pirlo controlled the tempo of the game with his passing and direction, the Mannschaft simply couldn’t get the ball off him. Germany’s midfield duo of Bastian Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira were out-run and out-numbered in midfield and failed to have the kind of dominating impact we’ve come to expect of them. The midfield remains the most crucial of the pitch and it was certainly where the Germans lost the game.
Mario Balotelli’s Night
He has his detractors, he has his fans but one thing you cannot deny what Mario Balotelli has is talent. And last night proved just why Cesare Prandelli invested his faith in the 21 year old striker. It was the Balotelli show as the Manchester City striker stole the spotlight with a brace. The first, a powerful header after a bit of magic from Antonio Cassano down the left.
But if the first goal was strong, the second was nothing short of emphatic. Riccardo Montolivo released the striker with a delightful through ball for Balotelli who beat the offside trap. The former Inter man sprinted towards goal before unleashing a pile driver of an effort that left Neuer completely shell-shocked. Mario Balotelli stepped up just when it mattered the most.
Man of the Match: Mario Balotelli