Briefly, Germany toyed with our minds.
For a few moments, they seemed to forget it was not supposed to be in their football DNA to miss from a penalty shootout even when the heat of the battle was dangerously close to intolerable. Yet how typical that, ultimately, it was their players in the victory scrum, chasing one another in euphoria and celebrating another victory from 12 yards. No other side does it better even if, on this occasion, they gave themselves an almighty scare.
They certainly tempted us to think they might have suffered a temporary loss of identity when Thomas Müller, Mesut Özil and Bastian Schweinsteiger failed to score with three of their opening five attempts in the high drama that eventually finished with Germany extending their remarkable run of reaching the semi-finals, at least, in every major tournament since Euro 2004.
Those three players can be added to a list that has not been troubled since Uli Stielike missed against France in the 1982 World Cup semi-final and, before that, Uli Hoeness in the 1976 European Championship final against Czechoslovakia. Müller’s weak attempt to beat Gianluigi Buffon broke a run of 22 successful spot-kicks from Germany in shootouts. Özil was next, striking the post, and soon afterwards Schweinsteiger wafted his effort high and wide when he had the chance to win the game in slightly less stressful circumstances.
Yet what does it say about Germany’s durability that they could still find a way despite more misses of this nature in the space of a few minutes than in the previous 40 years? Finally, they have beaten Italy in a major tournament, at the ninth attempt, and at the end of all the late, eccentric drama the attention was drawn to the four banners that had been placed strategically on one side of the stadium as a lesson in the history of this great football nation. The first showed the year 1972. The next two were for 1980 and 1996 and the fourth – “X…” – posed the question of when they would add to their list of triumphs in this competition. Nobody should be surprised if 2016 is that year.
For Italy, it was a jarring way to go out, in the ninth round of the shootout, and particularly for Matteo Darmian, the Manchester United defender, given that it was his failure to beat Manuel Neuer that gave Jonas Hector the chance to apply the decisive kick. Darmian, however, was not alone in his trauma. Antonio Conte had brought on Simone Zaza in the final seconds of extra time because he was supposed to be a specialist. Yet Zaza’s attempt went over the crossbar, Graziano Pellè put his effort wide and Neuer also managed to do what was beyond him in normal time, saving from Leonardo Bonucci.
Lorenzo Insigne and Andrea Barzagli were the only players to score from Italy’s first five takers, with Toni Kroos and Julian Draxler doing likewise for Germany. Emanuele Giaccherini, Marco Parolo and Mattia De Sciglio scored the next three for Italy, with Mats Hummels, Joshua Kimmich and Jérôme Boateng replying for Germany. Buffon, agonisingly, had reached the attempt by Hummels and in that split-second the line of Italian players broke, believing they might be witnessing the decisive save. Buffon was unable to stop the ball flicking off his fingertips and billowing the net. Germany were reprieved and Buffon’s night was to end in tears.
The disappointment for Germany – barring the bang to their ego of appearing, well, human – is that Hummels will be suspended from the semi-final against France or Iceland. Sami Khedira was forced off with a groin strain in the first half, an injury that could end his tournament, and Mario Gomez might also be a doubt for Thursday’s game. Overall, though, Germany must feel exhilarated. Even when they take bad penalties, they still win.
They had taken the lead in the 65th minute courtesy of Özil’s close-range strike but Italy’s response was a measure of their competitive courage.
This was never going to be a night when Conte’s men played with great adventure but it was difficult, nonetheless, not to marvel at the togetherness of the team managed by the man who will now take charge of Chelsea. The Italians played with great vigour and Boateng’s handball as he competed with Giorgio Chiellini gave Bonucci the chance to equalise from the penalty spot.
The remarkable thing was that Bonucci had never taken a penalty before in 11 years as a professional whereas Éder had an immaculate record from the 10 in his own career. Éder had to go off later with an injury and was therefore not involved in the extraordinary finale to what had hitherto been an ordinary game.
Until that point, it had suited Italy for Euro 2016 to have another slow, plodding contest, full of tactical intrigue but low on incident. Germany had certainly found it difficult getting behind the Italian defence until Gomez’s reverse pass sent Hector running into the left-hand side of the penalty area to set up the opening goal with a cross that deflected into Özil’s path.
Bonucci’s penalty was the first goal Germany had conceded in the tournament but he could not repeat the trick in the shootout and it ended with a familiar sense of deja vu.
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