WARSAW -- “Creating History Together” is Euro 2012’s motto. Overcoming history may yet prove to be the keynote of these championships. Or it might just be that the Italians relive history and thus deny the creation of new frontiers.
Spain is in line to become the first international team to win three major tournaments in a row. Germany, however, will not be joining La Roja in rewriting any record books. Instead, Die Mannschaft are once again also-rans. They could not extend their mark of 15 competitive wins in a row, and they couldn’t end the tournament hoodoo the Azzurri have over them as Italy defeated Germany 2-1 in the Euro 2012 semifinal in Warsaw.
A whiff of scandal, a slow start, a preponderance of Juventus players are all hallmarks of Italy’s World Cup wins of 1982 and 2006. The pattern is being repeated. Italy almost always performs best when written off. Work-in-progress was the label most often attached to manager Cesare Prandelli’s project in pre-tournament days. A remarkable progression takes Italy to the brink of denying Spain. A rerun of the group stage’s most enticing tactical battle, that Group C-opening 1-1 draw in Gdansk, will be Kiev’s final. The team with no strikers will face one with at least two in form, while the two best defensive records will be at stake. Most enticingly, a battle of midfield maestros awaits us.
Defeat to Slovakia at Johannesburg’s Ellis Park saw defending champion Italy exit the 2010 World Cup in humiliating fashion. It was the end of the road for then-manager Marcello Lippi’s group of old soldiers. Only five survivors in Giorgio Chiellini, Riccardo Montolivo, Daniele De Rossi, Antonio Di Natale and Andrea Pirlo have played any part here at Euro 2012. South Africa will not now be remembered as a sad coda for Pirlo.
Italy’s key man is both a pass and past master. Unless Sunday’s final supplies something truly spectacular, we have our man of the tournament. He is slow as a coach; England’s Paul Scholes might see him off in a sprint. But Pirlo guided Italy to glory with unerring, peerless precision. His loping classicism set him streets ahead of playmaking also-rans like Mesut Ozil, Toni Kroos and Bastian Schweinsteiger.
To hear talk of Pirlo from England after Sunday night’s performance in the quarterfinal, it was as if much of the English media had only just heard of the Juventus playmaker, despite his playing of two Champions League finals against Liverpool, and another in Manchester. That he was a World Cup winner in 2006 might perhaps have marked him out further. That last fact, of course, did not escape the Germans. The 2006 semifinal in Dortmund saw Pirlo pass them to eventual death in extra time.
German manager Joachim Low, Jurgen Klinsmann’s assistant that night, set out a game plan to deny Pirlo on Thursday in Warsaw. It proved just as ineffective as Roy Hodgson’s efforts in stopping the playmaker from assuming and retaining control of the game.
The Italians struck much earlier than they did six years ago. Extra time was not required. Mario Balotelli’s first goal arrived soon after Pirlo was to be found meandering in the center circle. It looked as though he had stumbled, but a typical Pirlo pirouette ghosted him past Mario Gomez. His cross-field pass was hit with the fade of a 9-iron shot from Seve Ballesteros in his prime. It found Giorgio Chiellini, who fed Antonio Cassano, whose own skills burst him past Jerome Boateng. The cross was delivered and Balotelli’s crashing header gave Italy a lead that its far more creative play had deserved.
By then, Pirlo had already revealed a lesser-known defensive side to his game in clearing the ball off the line in the fifth minute from Matt Hummels’ snap shot. The Borussia Dortmund man was to suffer disappointment throughout the match. So heavily praised throughout Euro 2012, and compared favorably to Mattias Sammer and Franz Beckenbauer for his bringing the ball out of the defense, Hummels instead showed that he is no defensive equal to his predecessors. The impish Cassano ravaged him on numerous occasions and while Balotelli’s two goals were beautifully taken, both seized on German defensive weakness.
Low’s hopes of flooding the midfield by preferring Toni Kroos to either Thomas Muller or Marco Reus could not quell Pirlo and his able lieutenants Claudio Marchiso, Montolivo and De Rossi. Italy dominated the midfield in a fashion to suggest that it can go far beyond Portugal’s near-successful midfield spoiling job on the Spanish. Low’s team failed to find any passing rhythm until it was far too late. It perhaps happened as a result of too much tinkering from the coach. Germany exits the tournament having failed to hit on a formula.
The choice of Gomez instead of Miroslav Klose suggested that Germany’s win over Greece in Gdansk had been an exercise in rotation policy. Gomez departed at halftime against Italy, his reputation as a nonperformer on the grandest occasion sadly enhanced. Klose, his country’s most prolific striker since Gerd Muller, could not effect change. Even in the second half, as Germany pushed on, its back line threatened to undermine any comeback effort. Had Di Natale put the right boots on – he slipped twice when granted the freedom of Warsaw to score a clinching third goal – then the late surge that bore German consolation in Ozil’s converted penalty would have been even more fruitless.
If Pirlo’s dominance loosened the Germans’ grip on the title they felt was theirs, then Balotelli was the man who cut their hands off. He followed his header with a wondrous finish from Montolivo’s through ball. Balotelli is certainly childish. But he is also very often nerveless when in front of goal. Manuel Neuer had no chance to stop Balotelli when he thrashed home his second goal. Then Balotelli reconfirmed his immaturity when being booked for his shirtless celebration.
The Germans’ long road of development toward glory that began in 2000 must continue and with serious reservations over possible success. The 2014 World Cup in Brazil looks a monumental challenge considering the acclimatization problems of playing in South America. Italy, two years on from disaster, prompted by Pirlo, has a chance to write history once more. In turn, the Azzurri look capable of denying Spain its immortality.
MAN OF THE MATCH – Andrea Pirlo
Balotelli scored two goals of supreme striking quality but he still didn’t hit the heights of the untouchable Pirlo. Euro 2008’s best player was Xavi, and his battle with his Italian creative counterpart in Kiev should be the highlight of the final.
GERMANY VERDICT: Is it becoming international football’s also-ran team? Since Euro ’96 It has reached two finals and two other semifinals, losing all four. Germany’s attacking riches did not get enough quality possession, as Ozil and Bastian Schweinsteiger flopped while Sami Khedira, the purported shield of the defense, was more notable for his attacking forays. For glory to be reached by this “golden generation,” it needs to defend better, perhaps taking a leaf from the book of its obdurate predecessors.
ITALY VERDICT: Pirlo and Balotelli were the two stars but a team effort provided the platform for their wizardry. The defense was solid throughout, with Chiellini outstanding at left back. Gianluigi Buffon is back at his commanding best to join Pirlo and De Rossi as members of the class of 2006 who can lead Italy to Euro glory for the first time since 1968.
FAREWELL TO WARSAW: The first city of Euro 2012 has hosted its last game of the tournament. At times the city seemed unprepared for such an influx of fans and players; at others it gave off the image of soon becoming a destination of choice. The National Stadium is a tremendous venue and gives the lie to the idea that new stadiums can never produce great atmospheres. England travels here soon. It will face a wall of sound.