Germany 1 Italy 2
An excellent semi-final saw Italy beat Germany again - the Germans have never beaten the Azzurri in tournament football - to advance to Sunday's Euro final where they meet Spain for what should be an absorbing game.
The much fancied Germans were rarely in the match at all after the first ten minutes as Pirlo, as he did against England, ran the game from deep while the defenders behind him stuck to their jobs, denying Germany space and opportunity. The main difference though was Mario Balotelli who shone up front with an impressive display of skill and power. Germany had no-one to match him and the truth is, despite all the praise heaped on the men in white and black during the tournament, Joachim Loew's team has at times, looked suspect in defence and seem to have acquired a reputation that isn't fully merited. A pointless argument, I know, but I'm not sure this side would have thumped England the way everyone seems to think; I believe much of the fear of Germany's football occupies the area between the ears rather than the penalty area.
Italy were under pressure from the off and Pirlo was on hand to clear off his own line after only five minutes. A Buffon fumble almost allowed the Germans in shortly after, the ball narrowly running wide of the Italian goal. It looked as if the infamous Italian defence may need to be at its best, but Pirlo soon started to see more of the ball and Germany began to get overrun in the centre of the park.
Balotelli's first goal came on 20 minutes and the build-up was significant. Pressure was put on Pirlo mid-way in the German half of the field, causing the little man to stumble and lose control, however he picked himself up and ran back a short way towards his own goal completely free of the opposition midfield who allowed him the space. Pirlo stopped and turned, allowing him to drop an excellent ball wide to full-back Giorgio Chiellini, who slipped it inside for Antonio Cassano to superbly beat the full-back on a turn and cross hard for Balotelli to thump in a header from close range.
Germany looked stunned and Italy began to dominate proceedings until from a German corner after 36 minutes, Italy went two up. Balotelli and Cassano were both left up-field as the corner was taken and when the ball run lose to Riccardo Montolivo deep in his own half, the Italian - who had a storming first half - spotted Balotelli making a superb run to beat the offside trap. The Manchester City striker ran onto the long ball, moved powerfully on and then smashed the ball with such power that German goal-keeper Manuel Neuer could only stick his arm out like he was hailing a bus. It was a superb moment and the result was so vital to the game that a pumped up Balotelli simply ripped off his shirt and posed stationary while his team-mates mobbed him.
Changes were required at half-time and Loew made them bringing on Miroslav Klose and Marco Reus for Mario Gomez and Lukas Podolski. The manager will probably get some criticism for not starting that way though, as Germany looked better immediately after the break. However, an early goal was required and when Lahm blazed over from a good position and Buffon superbly pushed Reus' free-kick against the bar and away to safety, confidence seemed to seep from the Germans and Italy once more started to dominate midfield. Di Natale, on for Balotelli who seemed to be suffering from cramp, should have made it three when he found himself in space but hit his effort wide of the far post. The Italians got caught offside several times when in good positions, much to the frustration of the Manager, particularly when one goal was ruled out as a result.
As the game wore on, Germany became more frantic without making much headway until a 92nd minute penalty was awarded for handball by Federico Balzaretti (according to Soccernet) or Daniele De Rossi if you listened to the BBC. The uncertainty over the scorer seemed moot to me as TV pundits reckoned it was a cast-iron, depite the fact I played it back four times and still couldn't see the handball. All I could see was a ball that reared up and struck De Rossi on the upper arm but it could hardly have been deliberate. Ozil scored from the spot but it was too little, too late and the whistle blew a minute later to the relief of Italy who may have been thinking about tense endings in other games this season.
As the Italians celebrated and the Germans sunk to the turf though, you'd have to say the late penalty flattered the Germans who were always second best to a magnificent Balotelli and a peerless Pirlo. One another thing though: Germans fans crying at half-time? Get a grip!
So, Sunday is final day and I'll be having a breather on Day 22 and 23 as I've got other sports to chase ;) I'd love to tell you but I can't..... See you Sunday!