Classic Azzurri Matches – Italy vs Germany 2012
Fresh off their quarter-final penalty shootout victory against England, Mike Lazar recounts how Italy heroically conquered longtime rivals Germany in devastating fashion thanks to a brace from Mario Balotelli, sending the Azzurri into their third European Championship Final.
Before the whistle had even been blown, June 28, 2012 was destined to see another historic match in the longstanding rivalry between Europe’s most successful footballing nations. Italy entered the UEFA Euro 2012 Poland-Ukraine tournament with a massive chip on their shoulder, as the side made an embarrassing group-stage exit two years previously in the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa.
This hiccup signalled the end of an era for the Italians, as World Cup winning coach Marcello Lippi was already set to be replaced by the then Fiorentina coach Cesare Prandelli prior to the tournament in South Africa, and made the necessary tweaks to give Italy the strong performance required in the next major tournament.
Prandelli’s squad finished the group stages undefeated this time around, and were the only side to score a goal against Spain in the process, who would eventually claim the championship in convincing fashion over the Azzurri in the final.
Before the heartbreak of the final there was plenty of celebration for Prandelli’s revitalized Azzurri, with one player in particular stealing the show for both the right and wrong reasons, mostly right. Unpredictable, controversial, explosive, and lethal, why always Mario Balotelli? Dubbed Prandelli’s “special protege” by some, “Super Mario” often claimed the headlines more for his sideline antics and immaturity than his natural talents as striker.
The aforementioned 1-1 draw against Spain was one to remember for the Italian born Ghanaian, becoming the first black player to represent Italy at a major tournament, but one to forget for his failure to net his clear chances against Iker Casillas before being subbed off after 56-minutes.
Balotelli was replaced after 69-minutes in the following group stage match against Croatia, which also finished 1-1. Critics insisted that Prandelli abandon his faith in the 21-year-old, and this accompanied comments from Azzurri teammate Daniele De Rossi and then club coach Roberto Mancini that the player would need to grow up in order to be the involved in the future successes of Italian football.
Much to the preference of many Azzurri faithful, Antonio Di Natale – Italy’s goalscorer against Spain – received the nod to start against Ireland in the final group stage clash, but couldn’t add to his strike against Spain before being replaced by the Manchester City striker late in the second half.
Balotelli delivered, better late than never as he spectacularly converted Alessandro Diamanti’s corner with a one timed overhead kick to double Italy’s lead in the 90th minute. Balotelli chose not to celebrate, but instead made a cheeky substitution hand gesture towards the Italy bench, prompting Leonardo Bonucci to forcibly cover his teammates mouth in order to restore some respect.
Cesare Prandelli chose to take the high road and include the striker for the full 120 minutes played against England, where Balotelli netted one of his clinical penalty kicks in the shootout victory. Few would have imagined the events that were to unfold against such a strong Germany side in the semi-final, but the Italians and Balotelli in particular were hungry for success.
Germany came into the clash having dispatched every group stage opponent and scored nine times in the process. Joachim Loew’s side consisted of 2006 World Cup veterans such as Miroslav Klose, captain Philip Lahm, Lukas Podolski, and midfield juggernaut Bastian Schweinsteiger, but were far more lethal with their new generation of established young stars.
Goalkeeper Manuel Neuer had only conceded twice to this point, and was guarded by the large frames and grit of Mats Hummels and Jerome Boateng, while Madrid stars Mezut Ozil and Sami Khedira supplied the midfield efficiency to provide frequent poaching opportunities to Mario Gomez up front.
The match opened nervously in front of 55,540 fans at Warsaw’s National Stadium, with Hummels forcing a goal line blockage from the always calm Andrea Pirlo. Just moments afterwards, the Azzurri could have fallen behind when Andrea Barzagli diverted Jerome Boateng’s cross just wide of Gianluigi Buffon’s post.
Riccardo Montolivo initiated a strong response to the early uneasiness, and lashed a venomous shot straight into the palms of Neuer to begin asking questions of the shot-stopper. Antonio Cassano forced an even better save from the keeper moments later with a low curling shot towards the bottom corner that the German tipped away.
A third decisive knock on the German’s defensive line gave Italy the crucial breakthrough in the 20th minute. Giorgio Chiellini linked up with AC Milan winger Antonio Cassano on the left flank and the creative maestro whipped a perfect cross to the head of Balotelli inside the penalty area. “Super Mario” easily evaded Holger Badstuber to thump in his second of the tournament and made his celebration known, as he shouted with enthusiasm and clutched his Azzurri shirt with sheer joy. That paled in comparison to his next celebration.
For the first time in their tournament Germany had conceded first, and Italy continued to ride their wave of confidence. With plenty of time given in possession, Riccardo Montolivo looked onward just behind his halfway line for passing options and seemed to hesitate for a moment before making one of the greatest plays of his Azzurri career.
The midfielder lobbed the ball long and high over the insecure German defence directly onto the chest of Balotelli, and the striker found himself one-on-one against Neuer. With blistering pace he unleashed a spectacular volley straight into the top corner of the net, and marked the astonishing move with his most iconic celebration yet. Balotelli tore of his shirt, turned to sternly face his teammates and flexed his arms downward in statuesque fashion.
Fans already knew that Balotelli could set fireworks off in his Manchester bathroom, but his fireworks on the pitch in Warsaw on the night had firmly etched him into the glorious Azzurri history.
The Italians were buoyed by the fantastic goals by their enigmatic striker, and could easily have doubled their lead in the second half with clearcut chances missed by Claudio Marchisio and Balotelli’s replacement Antonio Di Natale.
Joachim Low opted for an updated attack in an attempt to turn around the deficit when he replaced Mario Gomez and Lukas Podolski with Miroslav Klose and the speedy Marco Reus, but Die Mannschaft failed to sharpen their attempts at goal and too often left themselves at the risk of Italy’s quick counter attacking play.
An unfortunate handball by Roma’s Federico Balzaretti gifted the Germans a last second lifeline from the penalty spot that Mesut Ozil stroked home in the 90th minute, but Italy held onto their precious victory to see themselves through to their third ever European Championship final against the high-flying Spaniards.
Balotelli’s career seemed to peak in his magical 2012, where he famously assisted Sergio Aguero’s Premier League title winning goal in the final match of the season and took Italy to the heights of the UEFA European Championship Final after 12 years of wait. Many will look fondly on the magical win against Germany and wonder whether the striker will ever be back feature in Antonio Conte’s Azzurri.