Mario Balotelli was the star for Italy as he scored twice in a 2-1 win over Germany in their Euro 2012 semi-final at the Stadion Narodowy in Warsaw.
The mercurial Manchester City striker doubled his international goal tally with two first-half strikes that eliminated the joint-favourites for the title and booked his own side’s place in the final against Spain in Kiev on Sunday.
Mesut Ozil pulled one goal back from the penalty spot in the second minute of injury time, but it was too late for Germany to complete a comeback and salvage their hopes of winning a first tournament since 1996.
The victory extends Italy’s unbeaten record against Germany in competitive games to eight matches, and it was a performance fit to sit alongside some of the other classic instalments of this fixture between Europe’s two most successful teams.
Reaching the final is made all the more remarkable for Italy when taking into account that they finished bottom of their group at the last World Cup below Paraguay, Slovakia and New Zealand.
The evening began in nervy manner for the Azzurri. In the first 15 minutes Andrea Pirlo had to clear Mats Hummels’s instinctive effort from a corner off the line and goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon spilled a low strike from Toni Kroos that rebounded off Andrea Barzagli and trickled wide of the goal.
Gradually Cesare Prandelli’s side became more enterprising. Antonio Cassano and the half-German Riccardo Montolivo both tested Manuel Neuer from range, but it was Balotelli who broke the deadlock with 20 minutes played.
Cassano managed to roll his way through two Germany players on the left wing after good build-up from Pirlo and Giorgio Chiellini and his dinked cross was headed past Neuer by Balotelli, who celebrated in uncharacteristically joyful fashion. That goal, only the striker’s third senior international strike for his country, was Italy’s first ever in a European Championship semi-final.
Germany responded well after going behind for the first time in a competitive game since their third place play-off at the 2010 World Cup. Ozil’s attempt to pass the ball past Buffon from 20 yards was unsuccessful, before Lukas Podolski was only denied a free shot at goal by an excellent tackle from Federico Balzaretti.
Sami Khedira connected well with his half-volley from range and Buffon conceded a corner from his save, but it was from that Germany set piece that Italy broke to score the killer second.
After defending and clearing the set piece, Montolivo sent Balotelli away with a pinpoint ball over the top. The striker’s control set the ball up perfectly for him to fire an unerring strike into the top corner just as Philipp Lahm made a despairing lunge in vain.
Balotelli was booked for removing his shirt in another celebratory outpouring of emotion, but nothing could dampen his or Italy’s spirits at that moment.
Germany made significant changes at the break, introducing Miroslav Klose and Marco Reus in place of Mario Gomez and Lukas Podolski. Reus made an immediate impact, having a shot saved before playing his part in the move which culminated with Lahm firing over the bar.
Prandelli methodically made substitutions at regular intervals throughout the second half, including removing the indefatigable Montolivo, and by the 70th minute both sides had made all three of their allotted changes.
As Germany pushed harder for a goal that would get them back into the game, the game really began to open up. Reus forced a good save from Buffon with a wickedly dipping free-kick soon after Balotelli had fired low across the face of goal. Claudio Marchisio spurned two great chances to give Italy an unassailable 3-0 lead, while Balzaretti denied Reus a clear shot at goal with a wonderfully-timed tackle that he celebrated as though he had scored at the other end.
However, Balzaretti was culpable for giving away a spot-kick that gave Germany just a sliver of hope after he handled inside the area. Buffon guessed the right way from Ozil’s kick, but the playmaker’s shot was hit out of his reach.
It proved to be too little, too late for Germany, and even Neuer’s repeated forays forward for set pieces were not enough to avert yet another defeat to their bogey team.