Super Mario’ delivers the goods again; Ozil scores the consolation goal off a late penalty
The Germans have never beaten the Italians in a major soccer tournament, and after what happened here in Poland’s new National Stadium on Thursday night, they must wonder whether they ever will.
In an enthralling semifinal match, with both sides roared on by their fans and both teams going for the victory from the first whistle, Italy won, 2-1, advancing to the Euro 2012 final on Sunday against Spain. Both its goals had one name written on them: Mario Balotelli.
He performed as if he had not heard that this was the best team Germany has produced in decades. It had racked up a record 15 successive victories in competitive games, and it arrived here with the swagger of an expectant champion.
By half-time, it was clear that one Italian in particular had Germany’s measure.
“At the end of the game when I went to my mother,” Balotelli said immediately after the game. “That was the best moment. I told her these goals were for her.”
In 1982, and again in 2006, Italy went to World Cups under a cloud of match-fixing in its home league, and won them both.
Could it be happening again?
If it is, one has to give the credit to coach Cesare Prandelli. He preaches a positive game, and picks players others may never dare to.
The first goal was a beautiful amalgam of that. It actually began deep in Italy territory, where Andre Pirlo was shoved. Rather than go down, he wheeled around and fed one of his laser-beam passes to Giorgio Chiellini on the left.
Chiellini did the simple thing and helped the ball on to Antonio Cassano. This was where the magic began. Cassano is a player whom others have doubted, and who had minor heart surgery in October. But Prandelli told him to take his time, get fit for June, and he would pick him.
Cassano has been delivering with increasing cunning, game by game. His turn was too smart for Mats Hummels, his cross was measured for the six-yard box, and when Holger Badstuber mistimed its flight, Balotelli was right there, heading in the goal with fearsome power.
So that makes him ‘Super Mario’ again, no longer the unreliable volcanic Balotelli whom plenty of critics said Prandelli was a fool to trust.
Maybe one goal does not excuse all, but a second just might.
Italy sprang this one the length of the Warsaw field. Goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon beat out a corner kick, straight to the red shoed Riccardo Montolivo. He looked up, saw Balotelli lurking and struck the ball 35 yards from left to right to him. Balotelli took it on his chest, turned, outran the remnants of the German defence, and lashed the ball high into the net. This one was merciless in its force and direction.
Germany’s goalkeeper, Manuel Neuer had no chance, and he did the decent thing: he actually applauded the strike that so comprehensively beat him.
Those goals, at 20 and 36 minutes, devastated the Germans.
But were they out of this game? Are the Germans ever out of a contest? They had created a flurry of chances before the goals, and Buffon at one point had a charmed life when his sprawling deflection of Jerome Boateng’s volleyed low cross struck the inside of Italy defender Federico Balzaretti’s left knee and rebounded just wide of the goalpost.
At half-time, coach Joachim Loew took out Mario Gomez and Lukas Podolski and replaced them with Mirolsav Klose and Marco Reus. It was Reus, with a rising, curling free-kick, who forced Buffon to show again what an agile and alert ’keeper he is. Buffon tipped the shot over his bar.
Germany made changes, but its substitutes could neither subdue Italy’s exuberance nor mount the famous German comeback. Mesut Ozil did score, but it was a penalty kick two minutes into injury time a penalty awarded for a handball against Balzaretti.
A handsome enough shot from Ozil finally defeated Buffon, but the result was long sealed. © New York Times News Service, 2012
Keywords: Euro 2012