Euro 2012: Balotelli hits form to rock favourites Germany to the core
Germany 1 Italy 2
The fireworks, the impromptu prison visits and the training-ground scraps - even the red cards and the arguments with Roberto Mancini. All these things made a reputation for Mario Balotelli of sorts but what no-one can argue with was a performance in Warsaw last night that took the tournament by the throat and changed it.
That was Balotelli against Germany, a match-winner whose two goals took his country into the final of Euro 2012 against Spain on Sunday and for one night at least established him as a serious footballer on the highest stage. He might not have passed the ball as beautifully as Andrea Pirlo, or run as far as Daniele De Rossi but when it mattered Balotelli finished with the certainty the great Italian strikers have always had.
At the final whistle he sought out his adoptive mother Rose in the stands, who tearfully kissed him and, for a moment, the chaotic world that Balotelli inhabits looked a lot simpler. One hesitates to say from now on he will be a cool, composed goal machine who is in bed by 10pm every night but he will always have this semi-final.
Balotelli said afterwards that it was the "most beautiful day of my life". "I have waited for this moment for so long, especially with my mum here, I wanted to make her happy," he said. "Along with Spain we are the two best teams in the tournament. Can we win? I'll tell you on Sunday.'"
He played his part in a peerless Italy performance of balance and control, in which they picked off this keen young Germany team twice in the first 36 minutes and then defended brilliantly. The only flaw was Federico Balzaretti's handball which gave Germany a penalty that Mesut Ozil converted in injury-time at the end of the game.
The Indian sign that Italy has over Germany lives on, with this the two nations' eighth meeting in tournament football and the Germans still to win a game. Unfortunately for Joachim Löw, the peerless Pirlo out-passed his young team with the same precision that did for England four days earlier.
Later Peter Schmeichel, who made Pirlo his man of the match, described the performance as the "best yet" from an individual at this European Championship. Pirlo was ably supported by Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli, the two centre-halves who defended stoically, and the hard-running De Rossi and Claudio Marchisio.
By Löw's own admission his team were exposed by the two goals, which both had their roots in defensive errors. This was Germany's second semi-final defeat to Italy in three tournaments, after the World Cup finals in 2006 when Löw was the assistant to Jürgen Klinsmann, and it clearly hurt. Asked whether this might be the end of his time in charge, Löw launched an impassioned defence of his team but did not say he would definitely stay.
"You can't be impatient," he said. "It's hard to win a title. Spain waited years ... it's a learning process for us, playing at this top level with these strong other teams, there's nothing in between the sides. One moment where you don't pay attention can cost you the game."
Löw made three changes to the team that dispatched Greece with Mario Gomez, Lukas Podolski and Toni Kroos back in. He wanted Kroos, he said later, to put pressure on Pirlo and De Rossi which worked in the opening stages. Alongside him, however, Bastian Schweinsteiger, clearly not completely fit, struggled to control the game.
Nevertheless, Germany started strong. Pirlo had to block a mishit shot from Mats Hummels on the line with five minutes gone. Gianluigi Buffon pushed a cross from Jérôme Boateng against the legs of Barzagli and the ball only just wandered wide.
Under Cesare Prandelli, however, Italy have a different, attacking philosophy. They have had 35 shots on goal, more than any other in the tournament and while they had fewer than Germany last night they kept to their coach's beliefs that this team's strengths is their quality on the ball.
For their first goal it was Pirlo's pass that found Giorgio Chiellini, playing at left-back, in an advanced position on that side of the pitch. He gave the ball to Antonio Cassano who got away from Hummels much too easily and picked out Balotelli with a cross that gave the striker the advantage over his marker Holger Badstuber to head the ball past Manuel Neuer.
The goal affected Germany, so used have they been to dominating games. They created chances but they could not open Italy up in the way they had other sides. Balzaretti did well to get a cross out of the path of Podolski, a peripheral figure in the German attack who was watched last night by his new manager Arsène Wenger, a pundit for French TV.
Sami Khedira's ferocious volley was as close as Germany came in the closing stages of the half, on 35 minutes, and then, a minute later, Balotelli scored again. The ball over the top to him was hit by Riccardo Montolivo and it caught Philipp Lahm badly out of position.
As the Germany captain tried to recover himself, Balotelli seemed caught in two minds whether to let the ball run past him or take a touch. In the end he set off towards goal with Lahm closing and the ball sat up for him nicely. He struck his shot with breathtaking power and celebrated by standing as still as a statue with his shirt off. It earned him a booking but you can only assume he considered it a price worth paying.
Löw brought on Marco Reus and Miroslav Klose and later added Thomas Müller but Italy were exceptional in defence, notably one tackle by Bonucci on Klose in the area that had to be timed impeccably, and was, while Buffon turned a Reus drive onto the bar.
Even before Ozil's penalty, Neuer had already joined the attack and Germany created a tension in the Italians in the final moments of injury-time. "We are dreaming big," Prandelli said. "We want to win this." It is their ninth major final, and they have won five of the previous eight. They are underdogs on Sunday, but only just.
Man of the match Balotelli.
Match rating 8/10.
Referee S Lannoy (Fr).