Something had got to give in this fixture. Since 1962, Germany, in their divided West German form and as a unified nation, have failed to find a way to get past the Italians. Those gritty, stone-faced Italians playing with a chest-thumping passion that has its own unique, niche in international football.Eight times before this fixture they have come up short, in what has largely been a battle of contrasts.
Germany, though, are on their own, metronomic run – they have not missed a single semi-final berth starting Euro 2004. The odds were stacked against them, until they dragged the game into familiar territory - a penalty shootout to seal yet another last four spot. Shootouts are cliched to be a "lottery", an inevitable "roll of the dice", where teams can "win or lose on their day". Not for Germany. Uli Stielike, 61 now and managing the South Korean national team, was the last German to miss a shootout spot kick, way back in 1982, the year when Paolo Rossi and Italy beat West Germany in the World Cup final. It had been that long.
Yet, it was a game of multiple oddities and tactical responsiveness from both sides, each having to play the other's game to stay afloat for large parts of the 120 minutes. Italy had Daniele De Rossi's injury and Thiago Motta's suspensions dictating their selections, casting a shadow over how they would adapt against Germany's menacing attacking line. Joachim Loew, on the other hand, made the first, proactive move, switching to a 3-5-2, dropping Julian Draxler and fitting in an extra defensive man in Benedikt Howedes. Instantly, it meant both the high lines rammed into each other, creating a distinct lack of space in midfield. Italy were reliant on aerial balls across the pitch, with Emmanuele Giaccherini making near-anonymous runs into the penalty area, into the path of accurate long balls, behind ball-watching defenders.
The next change was also Loew's, a double bluff gamble bringing on Bastian Schweinsteiger, who kept retreating to the back line, trying to orchestrate the game - a role he had started to play for Manchester United before his injury. The idea was clearly to tire the Italians, who were more than happy to stick to their routine, pressing, heading and clearing their way to safety, without any sense of nervousness.
Antonio Conte's selections have had their fair share of criticism, and it is testament to his faith and training methods that every single player has understood the common thread underlying this philosophy – throw yourself, and never let the ball cross you at any part of the pitch. It was a truth reflected in as many as 11 players on a yellow card, facing the danger of missing the semi-final, should they have qualified.
No single moment of the game, at least in the 120 minutes of open play, stood out as much as Alessandro Florenzi's barely believable goal-line block to possibly deny Thomas Muller and Germany a 1-0 lead. It had its place on a sepak takraw court than a footballing pitch, and is one that would be replayed for years to come. It spoke of unyielding commitment and a tendency to throw the body ball-wards with exceptional skill, even if you were an attacking player whose moment under the sun has been a goal from near the half-line against Barcelona. Throughout this tournament, it is an aspect that has come out repeatedly - everything has felt like it's been done before on the training ground.
Conte's last couple of gambles had mixed outcomes, the first one being the choice of Leonardo Bonucci for taking the spot kick to put them level. Bonucci has not taken a penalty over 11 years in his professional footballing career, and yet, it came off perfectly well. Manuel Neuer had guessed right, but got nowhere close to the ball, as it made its way into the bottom corner.
The second, was the introduction of Simone Zaza, at the end of the second half in extra time - a move reminiscent of Tim Krul replacing Jasper Cilessen for the penalty shootout in the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Zaza looked a bundle of nerves, as he paused and hit one over the crossbar. It triggered a series of mis-hits, including one from Bonucci later on, as Italy exited the tournament against a German penalty line-up that found its mojo on time, twice assisted by Gianluigi Buffon who, after guessing right, let the ball pass through under his fingertips.
This lot of Italians, distinctly short on stardust, have punched well above their weight, and if there's a compliment to be paid to Conte, it is that watching them has felt like watching a well-drilled club side at its tactical zenith. Only a couple of last-ditch gambles separated them from Germany, and if it is possible to do so in defeat, they must take pride in how it all came together over these four weeks.
Published Date: Jul 03, 2016 12:34 PM | Updated Date: Jul 03, 2016 12:34 PM