Italy pulled off an upset last night by beating what looked to be, on paper at least, a far superior Germany side 2-1 to claim a place in Sunday night’s EURO 2012 final against Spain.
What was even more surprising about Italy’s win was just how easy it was. Germany, who had looked an extremely strong side up to that point, all of a sudden looked uncertain and full of weaknesses, and once they had fallen behind, never looked like coming back into the game. Italy were simply far too good for the Germans.
One of the big questions for Germany, and a key to the game, was how they would deal with Andrea Pirlo. In the quarter-finals, England gave Pirlo far too much space and he dominated. Joachim Low’s dilemma therefore was how would he set his team up to deal with Pirlo, without disrupting Germany’s attacking play?
Cesare Prandelli kept faith with the diamond formation that had served Italy well in their previous games. Ignazio Abate was injured, so Balzaretti swapped to right-back and Chiellini returned at left-back. Italy’s defence played slightly higher up the pitch than they had in previous games, and this proved to be a masterstroke from Prandelli, as Mario Gomez was given no space at all.
Germany stuck with their 4-2-3-1 formation, and the only change in the defence was at right-back where Jerome Boateng returned after serving a suspension, but the talking point was the selection of the front four. With only Ozil a guaranteed pick in attack, there were three places up for grabs and Germany have no shortage of suitable candidates to fill them. Low selected Mario Gomez and Lukas Podolski ahead of Miroslav Klose and Andre Schurrle, but the surprise pick was that Toni Kroos was given a starting role.
Kroos’ selection seemed to suggest he’d play a little behind the other attacking players, to try and limit the space Pirlo had to operate in with Ozil playing out on the right, but it was the other way round for the first ten minutes of the game, with Ozil staying in the middle and Kroos out on the right before they eventually switched.
Germany had the better of the opening few minutes and exposed a few uncertainties in the Italian defence. Pirlo headed off the line and Buffon having to save from Kroos, but after the Italian defence settled down, their midfield started to take over.
It was clear that Pirlo was still getting too much space to work his magic, not as much as England gave him, but Kroos was not getting close enough to him to limit his passing and this was to prove crucial for Italy’s opening goal. Pirlo picked out Chiellini, who had pushed forward unchallenged from defence, with a long ball, Chiellini then found Cassano, who was given too much space by both Boateng and Hummels and managed to turn both players and put a glorious cross into the box where Mario Balotelli had given Badstuber the slip to easily head pass a helpless Neuer from close range.
Italy are the masters of defending a lead and immediately tweaked their system so that the midfield almost switched to a standard four-man midfield when Germany had the ball. This was a clever move, as the weakness of a midfield diamond is that the opposing full-backs can attack unchecked so by changing the midfield setup, Italy had stopped that threat instantly.
Montolivo had an excellent first-half. He was doing an effective job in disrupting the German midfield, getting back to help Pirlo as and when he was needed and still proving a good link between defence and attack for Italy. It was Montolivo who created the second Italian goal. Italy had kept players up the pitch while Germany had a corner, and Montolivo was able to find Balotelli, who was given too much space by Badstuber and Lahm, and Balotelli was able to race between them and smash a shot into the top corner.
Balotelli ‘celebrated’ in his own inimitable style. When asked before the game why he rarely celebrates scoring a goal, Balotelli replied by saying “when a postman delivers letter does he celebrate?” Italy went into half-time with a commanding and well-deserved lead.
Low had to do something drastic to try and turn the game around, and he responded by replacing Gomez with Klose and Podolski with Reus. Germany started the second half strongly, but created little. Prandelli responded well, by replacing Montolivo with the more-defensive minded Motta and then brought Diamanti on for Cassano, ensuring that there was still a link between midfield and attack.
Italy were looking dangerous on the counter attack, and Marchisio and Di Natale, on for Balotelli, should have increased their lead. Low’s final roll of the dice was to bring Muller on for Boateng, but that move ended up disrupting Germany’s shape and they couldn’t get possession of the ball. Ozil scored a late penalty deep into injury time, but Germany never looked like getting back into the game and Italy were good value for their win.
Italy will go into the final against Spain on the back of their best performance in this tournament so far, with Spain having put in an insipid performance against Portugal. Italy were more than a match for Spain when they met in the group stages, and have history on their side; Spain have not beaten Italy over 90 minutes in a competitive game since 1920, so Italy will have no fear of Spain and will be confident of winning their first European Championship since 1968.
Germany (4-2-3-1): Neuer, Boateng (Muller 71), Hummels, Badstiber, Lahm, Khedira, Schweinsteiger, Ozil, Kroos, Podolski (Reus 46), Gomez (Klose 46)
Italy (4-1-2-1-2): Buffon, Chiellini, Barzagli, Bonucci, Balzaretti, Marchisio, De Rossi, Montolivo (Motta 63), Cassano (Diamanti 58), Balotelli (Di Natalie 69)
Players of the Game:
Mario Balotelli: It’s true Balotelli can often be a liability, but when he puts his mind to it, he can be a devastatingly effective player, and this was the case against Germany, where he scored two goals and didn’t give the German defence a moment’s peace.
Andrea Pirlo: Once again Pirlo ran the show from midfield, he didn’t get as much space as he did against England, but it was still enough for him to dominate the midfield.
Riccardo Montolivo: Montolivo was exceptional in the first-half, being effective in all areas of the midfield, he was an effective link between the midfield and attack, he managed to disrupt Germany’s midfield and tracked back to help Pirlo out defensively when he was needed.
Flops of the game:
Holger Badstuber: Badstuber was caught flat-footed for both goals. He had no idea where Balotelli was for the first goal and was actually facing the wrong way when Balotelli scored his header. He also gave Balotelli too much space for the second goal.
Toni Kroos: I can only imagine that Kroos’ instructions for the game were primarily to close down Pirlo and stop him controlling the midfield. Kroos just didn’t manage to do thatand Pirlo once again dominated the midfield.
Mario Gomez: Gomez was in form after having scored three goals in the group stage, but was totally anonymous in the match. Italy pushed their defensive line up and Gomez wasn’t able to find any space at all in which to operate and never looked like scoring.