Mario Balotelli wrote a new chapter in what is a growing legend tonight, scoring two sumptuous goals to lead Italy past Germany 2-1 and into the finals of the European Championships.
The game was neither as close as the final scoreline suggests – nor, for a half, as far apart as many will assume from watching the highlights. Tonight saw a sleek, fast Italy press Germany all over the pitch, but the difference was that while the Germans missed their chances, Italy sunk theirs.
The irony is that this Italy team wasn’t even supposed to be here. Dogged by the latest match-fixing scandal to hit their soccer leagues, Italy was forced by the investigation to leave Domenico Criscito home, and saw venerable keeper Gianluigi Buffon answer a number of uncomfortable questions about gambling. Cesare Prandelli was seen as a more than capable manager but he was also perceived as presiding over a squad that was aging, slow and unbalanced.
Since then, the Italians have sprung a series of surprises.
They qualified on the final day of group play when a number of pundits had them written off for dead. They not only outclassed but outlasted a dogged England last Sunday to win on penalty kicks. Then, when the line was they would be exhausted on only four days of rest, they flew out of the gates Thursday night and pushed Germany all over the field.
Were the Germans overconfident? Certainly, they had reason to be when Sami Khedira and Mats Hummels had huge chances go awry early on. Hummels had a shot from six yards run through Buffon’s legs but cleared off the line by Andrea Pirlo’s thigh. Khedira would miss wide right and then see a series of forays blunted by Buffon.
First, Antonio Cassano latched on to a ball from Giorgio Chiellini and turned Hummels inside out. Cassano’s cross was impossible for keeper Manuel Neuer to deal with: had he come out to collect, he would have been beaten. Instead, he had to suffer watching Balotelli launch it past him with a profound header.
The second came when Riccardo Montolivo launched a fine ball off the left flank over the entire German back line. Balotelli, in alone, got the ball out between his feet and uncorked the goal of the tournament, a smash to the top corner that even Superman couldn’t have kept out.
Both goals underscored the softness of a German spine that many had assumed had the character to see the game out. Hummels and Holger Badstuber, both young at 23, proved to be the weak links tonight, with Balotelli pulling one into the other to give his teammates time to create. Hummels in particular never seemed to recover from his earlier gaffe in front of goal, and when the Germans were forced to plow forward, he was exposed badly by a series of harassers in blue.
Soccer is a strange game, and how much history plays into contest like this is often overlooked. Germany remain unable to beat Italy in a meaningful game at this level, and it goes beyond the level of luck to a matter of psychology. Italy never appeared really challenged in this game, even when they made some nearly disastrous gaffes early on. But Germany did grow flustered, as if they believed not only that they were destined to win the game – but that there was no way they should be losing it so early on.
The image that stands out is that of captain Philipp Lahm, standing, yelling at his teammates while a bare-chested Balotelli gazed serenely out at the crowd. One never looks happy when he scores, the other was very unhappy to be losing a major game again this season. Red-faced and choked up, Lahm told reporters after the game that the loss was entirely his team’s fault. The mercurial Balotelli, for his troubles, was hugged by an ecstatic old Italian lady as he exited the field.
Spain began their charmed run in 2008 against Italy - now they are in a position to complete an historic treble. There, talking to the ball, Cesc Fabregas sunk the critical penalty kick. Spain would go on to win the 2008 edition of this tournament and then the World Cup. Now, Italy stands in their way again.
With Spain wobbling and Italy soaring, only a chump would dare guarantee a winner next Sunday at this remove.