A magical moment engulfed Bordeaux as Germany finally pulled their way through to the European Championship semi-finals, thus ending their dreaded curse against Italy aided by a nail-biting penalty shootout. It had all the makings of a historic game.
18 penalty-kicks, the normal 10 and another four rounds of sudden-death, saw Germany finally win against a tough Italian side who refused to go down without a fight. Germany took a 1-0 lead, and victory seemed to be on the Germans’ side until Jerome Boateng allowed a penalty to Italy with just 12 minutes to go.
Leonard Bonucci made no mistake and suddenly the Germans found themselves at the face of a penalty shootout. This was a tight, tense tactical game – two hours of football with two goals and each side ensured that the opposition did not get too many opportunities to score. Both teams were equally level, which was what gave the viewers – especially the neutrals – a delightful game of football.
A penalty shootout with gifted goalkeepers such as Manuel Neuer and Gianluigi Buffon was expected to be intense. The first section of the shoot-out, with five kicks each, ended 2-2. Simone Zaza lifted his kick over, Mesut Ozil hit the post, Graziano Pelle dragged his wide, ultimatrly all falling down to Bastian Schweinsteiger to end the shoot-out. Schweinsteiger, however, hooked his kick over, and the game continued.
This was when Germany stayed calm and converted three straight kicks to keep the tie alive before Matteo Darmian failed to beat Neuer. Jonas Hector had Germany’s second shot to win and this time he made no mistake. Germany qualified rightfully ahead, especially after a game in which they had been superior throughtout.
The biggest surprise of the night was when Joachim Low abandoned his favoured 4-2-3-1 system to match Conte’s style. Undoubtedly, Low had seen Italy’s last game, where they defeated Spain purely due to tactical superiority.
Low dropped Julian Draxler, even after his man-of-the-match performance against Slovakia in Lille last Sunday. 4-2-3-1 became 3-4-2-1, with Joshua Kimmich and Hector pushed wide as wing-backs. Germany did not allow themselves to be outflanked by Mattia De Sciglio and Alessandro Florezni, nor did they leave any scope for gaps in the middle either.
By matching Conte’s system, Low succeeded in pulling a fast one over him. Football can be similar to chess and Low outsmarted Conte by using his own style against him. Germany were free to take control. They dominated possession from the first whistle, but had to be patient, against an Italy side as comfortable in a 5-3-2 shape as a 3-3-4. Mats Hummels became the German chance creator. He hit one long ball just beyond Mario Gomez, and another to Schweinsteiger, whose headed goal was disallowed for a foul on De Sciglio.
Post half time, the Germans played with better rhythm, good enough to break down the famous Italian defence. When Florenzi got caught under a Neuer kick, Gomez broke fast into the space down the left and was found by Muller at the right time. Hector crossed over to Ozil as he bounded into the box and converted beautifully.
Germany looked stronger than ever after Draxler came on. An even bigger surprise was when Germany became complacent and allowed Italy to score. Boateng was marking Chiellini tightly in the box when a cross came in, but Boateng jumped with his arms high. The ball hit his right hand and the penalty award was obvious.
Leonardo Bonucci made no mistake as he drove the ball into the bottom right hand corner. This came as a miracle to Italy as they were back into having a chance to win a game that they had virtually lost. Suddenly, Italy who looked like winners, and when Florenzi and Eder drove another counter-attack forward, with 10 minutes left, Pelle should have done better than dragging his shot wide.
Extra time was as tired and careful as it often is in games that mean this much. There were half-chances for Ozil and Lorenzo Insigne, but little more than that, as the teams played out time until penalties.
Thus, finally, the better team won after a nerve-racking match for the viewers, the players and especially the coaches.