With the swift penalty of Alessandro Diamanti for Italy to progress against England on a warm evening in Kiev which had ticked over to Monday, we knew the four semi-finalists who would be vying for a place in the Euro 2012 final on Sunday night in Kiev. For their sins, Italy were pitted against the tournament favourites Germany who hadn’t lifted a piece of silverware in 16 years but also hadn’t beaten Italy in seven attempts at a major tournament. In the other semi-final was the holders and world champions in Spain who would face their Iberian neighbours in Portugal whom they beat at the previous World Cup in the knockout stages.
A lot of history was riding on the two semi-finals and a big western Europe rivalry which pitted Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal against the holders Spain who fielded Alvaro Negredo, a recognisable striker. This was seen as a shock to leave out Fernando Torres who had fitted in nicely in the only match he had started against Ireland.
Prior to the match, everybody knew the blueprint of what would happen in the match. Like in their quarter final against France, Spain’s plan was to keep the ball, frustrate the opposition before hitting them with a swift attack. Even though they were unable to retain as much possession, they did their best to frustrate Cristiano Ronaldo who at times was left on his own at the top of the field. He was safe to say ineffective despite his previous three goals in the tournament, his wayward efforts met with ironic cheers from the Spanish fans, many of which will see him play week in, week out in La Liga.
Rui Patricio was forced into the most difficult of his saves in extra time with Spain’s best chance coming from Andres Iniesta who couldn’t find the net as the dull and cagey contest inevitably went to a penalty shootout – the second successive 0-0 draw followed by a shootout in the tournament.
Xabi Alonso opened the shootout up by missing his penalty as Joao Moutinho returned the compliment. Iniesta, Pepe, Nani and Pique all exchanged goals to make it 2-2 going into the fourth round. Sergio Ramos etched away his penalty demons of the Champions League semi-final against Bayern Munich with a Pirlo-esque chipped penalty before Bruno Alves rattled the crossbar with what ultimately would be Portugal’s last penalty. Cesc, who scored against Italy 2008’s quarter final shootout claimed he replicated his superstition of speaking to the ball, almost willing the ball into the net and fortunately for the Barca midfielder his penalty clipped the post and nestled into the net as Spain booked their third successive tournament final.
The second semi-final in Warsaw was a replica of the 2006 FIFA World Cup semi where the hosts Germany faced the eventual champions in Italy thanks to two late extra time goals. Italy don’t hold a blemish against the 3-time World and European champions in Germany in a major tournament situation, of which they have met seven times in total.
It was a much livelier affair between the two multiple time World champions as Italy were out to win their second European Championship and first since 1968, almost eclipsing England’s 46 years of hurt in any major tournament. The Germans looked the most likelier to make things happen in the early exchanges of the match as the Italian playmaker, Andrea Pirlo manage to scramble an early chance off the line before Gianluigi Buffon was forced into a couple of saves.
A mix-up between Buffon and defender, Barzagli resulted in a fumbling and a deflection as the ball squirmed agonisingly wide for the Germans. The usually unflappable Buffon looked majestic in the Italian goal and knew he would be earning his wage on the evening in Poland.
Italy were being restricted to long sighters at goal but soon enough they would hold the lead, marking the first time in the tournament that Germany had gone behind in a match. They would be tested on their resolve as Mario Balotelli found space in a not-so-crowded penalty area to head home his second goal of the tournament from point blank range to which an equally impressive Manuel Neuer had no reply.
This brought out the Germans even more into the match, knowing that they had to strike fast otherwise the Italians who are famed for being unbreakable in their defensive tactics.
Before Germany knew it they were two behind as a long ball had the German defence and even the captain, Philipp Lahm dumbfounded as Mario Balotelli flummoxed the offside trap, leaving himself one-on-one with one of the best goalkeepers around in Europe. He held his breath, glanced up at Neuer, let the ball bounce into an advantageous position before unleashing a stupendous volley, Neuer left stranded once more by the Manchester City forward.
Italy would take the lead into the second half which irked Marco Reus and the experienced goalscorer, Miroslav Klose from the substitution bench. The former, Reus, came the closest to break that unbreakable Italian wall who had conceded just two goals all tournament. Reus’ curling free kick had Buffon stretching for the ball, only for the Borussia Monchengladbach forward to be denied by the combination of a gloved finger and some woodwork manufactured in stapled to the Polish turf.
Try as they might, Germany couldn’t penetrate Italy’s defence. In order to reach another Euro final they would have to score more in a quarter of the match than Italy have conceded in the entire four games which preceded it. As German flung both their attacking and defensive options into the Italian half which the Italians consequently counter attacked, exploiting the gaping holes but for di Natale and Diamanti’s efforts they couldn’t add a third.
They were to be punished by a late penalty by Germany as Federico Balzaretti handled in the area for Mesut Ozil to coolly slot home the penalty. It would be a consolation goal as for all of Neuer’s acrobatic diving headers 70 yards from his own goal line, Germany couldn’t find a second goal in stoppage time.
For Germany the tournament would end at the semi-final stage for the third time in the past four tournaments, the only tournament they didn’t get eliminated in the semi-finals they were beaten in the Euro 2008 final by Spain, whom Italy will meet. Conversely, for Mario Balotelli he has carved himself a platform for greatness with his double in the semi-final, a platform that can finally destroy Spain’s international dominance of the past four years.