Germany plays the hosts France in the semi-final of Euro 2016 after beating Italy in a thrilling penalty shootout. France ends Iceland’s dreams of doing a Greece with a thrashing in Paris.
We are at the National Stadium in Warsaw for the semi-finals of Euro 2012. The German players are on their knees; the famous white shirts are soaked in saline and sweat; invisible to the triumphant Italians playing the ultimate game of ‘pile-on’ in the centre of the pitch.
The mercurial talent of Mario Balotelli has eliminated the favourites with a brace. Mesut Ozil’s penalty came too late to raise the pulse on the wrist of the Italian team. Not many teams beat the Germans in a major final. Germany came into this tie at the right end of 15 consecutive victories in competitive matches. Germany would have to wait another four years for a chance at retribution.
Euro 2016, Bordeaux; Germany have a chance to avenge that defeat when they line up against Antonio Conte’s Italian side. Once again, the Germans are favourites. Will this be the night they rip the monkey off their back and stamp all over it?
Outside of Brazil, Italy and Germany are the two most successful international footballing nations with 12 major titles between them. With Portugal stumbling through to the semi-finals, Wales overachieving, and France still not having to defend against any team of note, the popular opinion is the winner of this tie will win the entire competition. It might be the semi-final but for all intents and purposes, it is the final.
The pair has met 34 times; Italy has won 15 of them with the Germans tasting victory on eight occasions. Crucially, the Italians have never lost a tie against the Germans in the final stages of a major competition. Nobody expected the Italians to get this far; equally, nobody will be shocked – their heritage takes care of that. Germany was always going to get there. They always do. It’s a human GPS thing. They haven’t even conceded a goal yet.
The Italian midfield looks a little threadbare – Daniele De Rossi and Thiago Motta both missing through injury and suspension. Things even up a bit in the 14th minute after injury prone Sami Khedira limps off with a muscle strain; the old war horse Bastian Schweinsteiger galloping off the bench to replace him.
The Germans start well and look like they have taken the lead in the 27th minute after Schweinsteiger heads the ball home only for his effort to be ruled out for a push on Mattia De Sciglio. The Italians end the half with their best effort – Emanuele Giaccherini cutting the ball back to Stefano Sturaro only to see his shot deflect off the Redwood Tree like frame of Jerome Boateng and run wide of the goal.
It was an uninspiring, tense, match, with neither player seemingly looking for the jugular. Things changed in the 64th minute when a hopeful long ball out of defence by Manuel Neuer was brought down from the sky by the impressive Mario Gomez. The lanky forward passed the ball into the path of the onrushing Hector; his cross deflected off an Italian defender, and Mesut Ozil arrived at the far stick to smash the ball home. It was his first of the competition.
Four minutes later and it should have been all over. This time, Ozil turned provider as his lob over the Italian defence found Gomez in an onside position and with his back to goal. The giant German improvised with an innovative backheel, only for Gianluigi Buffon to prove he still has it at the age of 38 with one of the saves of the competition.
The Germans had their foot pressed hard on the pedal. The Italians penned back. They couldn’t get a kick. The match had a German win spray painted all over it.
Then in the 76th minute, a rare foray into the German penalty area resulted in a corner. Alessandro Florenzi floated it into the box; Giorgio Chiellini jumped for the ball at the near post, and Boateng, for some unknown reason, decided to leap into the air with both of his arms reaching for the sky. The ball inevitably hit one of them; the referee pointed to the spot, and Leonardo Bonucci scored the resultant penalty to even things up for the Italians and send the tie into extra time.
The next 30-minutes were a non-event as have all of the extra time encounters we have seen at these Championships. It was the Germans who seemed to have the greater reserves of energy, but they couldn’t turn it into any chance of note, and these two giants of world football entered the lottery of a penalty shoot-out.
What happened next was nothing short of mind blowing.
The ice cool Germans had won five of their last six penalty shootouts and hadn’t missed one since 1982 (22 shots ago). Italy, on the other hand, had lost five of their last eight. It seemed as if Italy’s record of never having lost to Germany in a major finals was about to get crushed big time.
Lorenzo Insigne scored for Italy. Toni Kroos evened things up for the Germans. Next up was Simone Zaza. Conte had put him on the park specifically to take this kick. His first touch of the ball was to place it on the spot. The Juventus striker then made a ridiculous stuttering run up before blazing his shot over the bar. As far as penalties go, it was one of the worse you would ever see.
The Italians were cracking under the pressure.
The Germans would predictably score the next four penalties to win.
And then Thomas Muller stepped up and took a penalty that was just as bad, and Buffon saved it to even things up. Muller would later tell the press that he would never volunteer to take another penalty again.
Andrea Barzagli stepped up and smashed Italy into the lead, and then Ozil hit the post. What was going on? After scoring 22 in a row, they miss the next 2?
And then Graziano Pelle strode forward, confidently told Neuer where he was going to stick it, and then sent his weak shot wide of the post. The Southampton striker lurched back to the halfway line; Julian Draxler stepped up to fire home, and we were back to square one.
Doesn’t anyone want to win this thing?
It seems not.
Bonucci was sent forward to take the Italians final penalty. He was the man who gave them this opportunity with that 76th-minute equaliser, could he apply pressure on Germany by taking the lead?
Another weak penalty, another Neuer save, and up stepped Bastian Schweinsteiger to be the hero of what can only be described as a story that somewhere along the way lost the plot.
The Manchester United midfielder was playing for the 119th time. He has won every honour there is to win in the game. He is the man you want to take your tournament-defining spot kick. And then he missed…very badly. Schweinsteiger hoofing the ball over the bar, and we are in sudden death.
And this is where we found the plot.
Six players stepped forward and smashed the ball home before Manchester United’s Matteo Darmian saw his penalty saved by Neuer. What is it with these English based players? The appalling penalty shootout record of the English national side must be rubbing off on them.
And then came Jonas Hector, the FC Koln left-back, making only his 19th appearance for his country, and he had the responsibility of taking the Germans through to the semi-finals. He didn’t shirk it. He scored. Germany had done it again, only, this time, they revealed their jugular, and Italy didn’t have the courage to sink their fangs into it.
Their reward is a semi-final tie against the hosts France who did what England should have done and buried Iceland’s brave resistance with a 5-2 romp at the Stade de France. Bodog has made France the slight favourites at +175 v +180. I think that’s a mistake. We will find out when the two teams get jiggy with it on Thursday 7 July.
Portugal v Wales
France v Germany