Thursday 14 December 2017

La Dolce Vita for Azzurri


Henry Winter

SHORT of climbing in a fountain or disappearing off on the back of a Vespa, Mario Balotelli could not have conjured up La Dolce Vita more for Italy last night.

Balotelli lit up Warsaw's National Stadium with two magical goals and a rare smile to send Italy through to Sunday's final of Euro 2012 against Spain.

Always beware a man on a mission. Balotelli certainly was, ripping apart Germany's defence, and then celebrating with his mother Silvia at the final whistle. And always beware a team with a cause.

As in 2006 when they won the World Cup on German soil, the Italians seemed on a mission to restore the reputation of their great footballing nation in the wake of a fixing scandal. They played superbly, all through-balls and fine finishes in the first half and resolute defending and occasional breakaways in the second.

Andrea Pirlo was again sublime, the ball utterly bewitched by the deft strokes of the Italian playmaker.

Balotelli looked every inch the modern No 9 -- all power and acceleration and unstoppable finish in the air and on the ground.

Italy's defending was also exceptional, from Gianluigi Buffon whose emotional singing of the National Anthem sets the tone for his team's total commitment to the cause.

Even Mesut Ozil's late penalty could not stop Italy. Germany's fans sang loudly, and with great defiance for a sustained period in the second half, but this was a night when "Italia, Italia" and Balotelli reigned supreme.

Proponents of a winter break had their cause advanced by the freshness in Balotelli's movement, having enjoyed a 16-day break over the New Year and then a 35-day pause after his red card against Arsenal in April.

Until he was replaced by Antonio di Natale after 68 minutes, Balotelli was an outstanding leader of the line, always showing for the ball, always looking to turn Germany's centre-halves Mats Hummels and particularly Holger Badstuber. A Euro for the thoughts of John Terry and Joleon Lescott.

Italy had first to weather the early German storm. Hummels saw an effort cleared off the line by Pirlo, who briefly found himself swiftly closed down with an alacrity missing from England.


When Pirlo gained possession, first Ozil was on to him, then Toni Kroos, then Badstuber. The Germans were trying to fight Pirlo for the very oxygen but he never flinched.

After Buffon had denied Kroos, the Italians fully awoke. Making light of their shorter recovery period, the Azzurri were immense, pouring forward in blue waves towards Manuel Neuer's goal.

Riccardo Montolivo turned Bastian Schweinsteiger and fired in a shot that bounced awkwardly in front of Neuer, who saved slightly awkwardly. Then Antonio Cassano came calling, unleashing a firm right-footed drive that Neuer grasped.

Italy were now in the mood. Pirlo was beginning to break free, suddenly finding Giorgio Chiellini on the left and soon Cassano, the Italians breaking sweetly.

There was a doubt over whether Cassano would start, with Cesare Prandelli perhaps looking at Alessandro Diamanti (a change eventually made in the second half), but the striker utterly vindicated the coach's decision.

Cassano neatly turned Hummels, and lifted in a left-footed cross weighted to perfection. Germany's centre-halves endured a torrid few seconds that will stalk their dreams.

Badstuber was deceived by Balotelli's run, totally losing the City man, who headed powerfully past Neuer. Not since the 2010 World Cup third-place match had Germany been behind in a competitive match (1,313 minutes).

On the bench, Prandelli turned away with the calm look of a man who knows everything is doing to plan. To his right came the cry of "Italia, Italia".

Germany responded. For a while. Ozil tested Gianluigi Buffon with a low shot. Jerome Boateng skipped past Chiellini, lifting in a cross to the far post where Federico Balzaretti reacted superbly to clear ahead of Lukas Podolski.

Italy just laughed in the face of this attempted recovery, dissecting Germany's defence again. Another through-ball. Another monster of a finish.

This was utterly mesmerising football from the Italians, a celebration of technique and vision.

Philipp Lahm was totally confused by the accuracy and quickness of pass from Montolivo. Balotelli judged it perfectly, then meeting it thunderously, sending the ball flying with power and placing past a stunned Neuer.

For a player who usually eschews celebration, or simply strikes a pose, Balotelli ripped his shirt off, parading a muscular torso and three blue strips that address back problems.

When the screens had finished showing Balotelli and his inevitable booking, they panned in on the tear rolling down the face of a female German fan.

Loew had to react. He sent on Marco Reus and Miroslav Klose for Podolski and Gomez. Reus brought a good save from Buffon. The substitute then lined up a free-kick which Buffon pushed on to the bar.

The Germans then sent on Thomas Mueller, who had so embarrassed England in Bloemfontein, withdrawing the right-back Boateng. Germany now had a back-three, with Schweinsteiger covering the right-back position.

Claudio Marchisio was twice profligate while Di Natale hit the side-netting with the German back-door as open as the Brandenburg Gate.

Still the Italians defended with determination and concentration. Leonardo Bonucci headed clear. Buffon was alive to incoming danger. The thick blue line eventually yielded two minutes into added time. When Balzaretti handled the ball, Ozil converted. No matter. Italy were soon through. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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