Friday, 29 June 2012

Day Twenty One

Germany 1 Italy 2

I'm tempted to summarise the semifinals with a musical analogy, but the national stereotypes refuse to line up. Spain and Portugal gave us a Wagnerian opera, technically accomplished but perhaps a little stodgy at times. Germany and Italy gave us Carmen - full of goalmouth action and tunes you could hum. It worked for Italy, whose national anthem sounds like a comic opera already, but Germany could only manage the tragic death at the end. Maybe they shouldn't go round fucking toreadors while their boyfriends aren't looking. Or something. That was my thirtieth metaphorical summary of the tournament, so I'm sure you can fill in the gaps yourselves just this once.

Italy are something of a hoodoo team for Germany. Before tonight they'd never beaten them in 7 tournament games. The assumption had been that that would change here, but now it's 8 games without a win instead.

Both teams had been having selection issues over their strikers all tournament. Germany had been chopping and changing between Gomez and Klose, starting with one then bringing on the other later. Italy had been through the same with Balotelli and di Natale. Gomez and Balotelli started this one, to dramatically different effect.

The commentators made a big deal out of Real Madrid having seven players starting the semifinals, which was a odd considering they actually had nine. Bayern Munich had seven, all in the German team. The Real players were split between Spain, Portugal and Germany.

Except for Balotelli, every Italian player in their starting eleven plays for an Italian club. I've noticed a pattern in national teams, where they build the defence and midfield from their home leagues, as far as possible choosing players that play together all the time, and then bring in the eccentric expats to score the goals. It's true of all the semifinalists except Portugal, whose domestic league just isn't big enough to support clubs of that stature.

Bouffon started poorly. Five minutes in he made a right mess of a corner, which bounced to Hummels, who seemed so suprised he wasn't able to get a decent shot in. Ten minutes in he flapped at a cross, and was very lucky to see it go out for a corner.

They were uncharacteristic errors from a top keeper, but he got away with them both. I was reminded of poor old Scott Carson, who made two equivalent errors against Croatia in 2007 and was penalised both times. If he'd had Bouffon's luck England would have won that game 2-1, as Italy did here, and he might still be an England regular.

Italy may have been lucky early on, but they were making plenty of chances of their own. After 17 minutes Montelivo had a shot, which he managed to pull back against the direction of his movement and down to Neuer's right. If the keeper was surprised, he didn't show it, saving comfortably. Cassano had another effort a minute later, but it was comfortable for Neuer.

He couldn't keep Balotelli's header out two minutes later. It was Cassano who made the space, spinning round Hummels, who followed him into the turn when he shouldn't have, and crossing perfectly beyond Badstuber. For the first time in the tournament, in fact the first time since Euro 2008 in the Euros (so including the qualifiers) Germany were behind.

Visibly stung by this, they dominated the next phase. They had a few shots, but a mixture of slips, deflections, keen Italian blocking and poor shooting kept the score unchanged.  When Bouffon saved well from Khedira then dealt convincingly with the corner, we all started to sniff an upset.

Especially when Balotelli scored again from the throw out. It was a great ball from Montelivo, doing what Pirlo would have done if he'd had the ball, and a spectacular shot from the striker, smacking it into the top right hand corner before Neuer had time to move. Sometimes strikers go for subtlety, trying to put the ball where the keeper isn't expecting it by disguising their shot and varying the flight of the ball, and sometimes they just hit it really hard in a straight line going to exactly the right place. Why Germany gave him that much space was unclear. Maybe they were trying to play offside.

A few minutes later a German cross eluded the Italian defence, and fell to Podolski. He could have shot or controlled the ball first, but his indecision was final (to borrow a phrase from Alan Hansen for the absolute first time ever), as his control let him down and the ball drifted out for a goal kick.

Germany brought on Reus and Klose for Gomez and Podolski, and came out for the second half knowing what they had to do. On 49 minutes Lahm should have scored, after some nice interplay just outside the box set him up with a clear shot which cleared the bar. On the hour mark Bonucci was booked for a clear foul on Kroos as he ran across the face of the box. The free kick honours fell to Reus, whose excellent free kick was just pushed over by Bouffon.

Montelivo went off for Motta. He'd done well, but the Italian bench wanted a more defensive minded midfielder. They were defending with the counterattack in mind, though, and nearly extended their lead when some neat passing triangles set Marchisio free in the 67th minute, but his shot flew wide right.

They took Balotelli off after he had a fall. On came di Natale instead. Germany brought on Muller for Boateng. It was a striker for a defender, as it needed to be.

Despite the extra German firepower Italy still looked more likely to score. With 15 minutes left Marchisio got into the box as Badstuber slipped. He had the chance to score from wide right, unchallenged, but put it wide. Then di Natale had a chance to finish it, which he blundered away, and Balzaretti actually had it in the net for Italy, but was given offside.

On full time Hummels had a chance, but it was half blocked by Bonucci and bounced kindly off Bouffon's chest. Two corners later they had a penalty, for handball in the box. Ozil scored to give Germany two minutes of hope, and there were some nice frantic last minute comedy moments as Neuer came up to head into the box from a midfield position, but the whistle went without the Italian goal being further threatened.

So that was the semifinals. The final is Spain v Italy, which is a replay of the first game in Group C. This means that the last five European trophy winners have been Greece, Italy, Spain, Spain and Spain/Italy. Maybe it really isn't the winning that counts.

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