What better feeling can there be than to enter a penalty-kick shootout as a German national?
Germany once again must give thanks for its historic prowess at penalty kicks, having defeated Italy on Saturday in quarterfinals of the 2016 UEFA European Championship. After eight failed attempts, Germany finally ended the historic hex that Italy seemingly had over it in major competitions by topping Italy 6-5 in a penalty-kick shootout after the teams played to a 1-1 draw.
Germany advanced to the semifinals with eyes fixed on the goal of adding the Euro 2016 crown to the 2014 FIFA World Cup title it currently holds.
Meanwhile, Italy exits with heads high after playing the world champions as equals for 120 minutes and eight rounds of the shootout. As recently as three weeks ago, many called this Italy team its worst in 50 years, but its performances in five games in France made a mockery of that tag. Unheralded players and head coach Antonio Conte deserve immense credit for doing so. On another day, Italy beats Germany and reaches the semifinals as the favorite to win the competition. But it was not to be.
Germany-Italy was Euro 2016’s most highly anticipated game, but the proceedings failed to match its billing. The teams canceled each other out, both tactically and on the score line, over the course of 120 minutes. They struggled to find openings for 65 forgettable minutes minutes before Mesut Ozil put Germany in front on a poacher’s goal, which belied the considerable artistry of his skill set.
The fact that Germany took its first lead over Italy in a competitive game since the semifinals of the 1970 World Cup was more important than the manner in which it finally breached the Azzuri’s defense. Yet the weight of history and Italy’s current resolve erased Germany’s lead within 14 minutes.
Jerome Boateng, one of the world’s best central defenders, committed a grave mistake by handling the ball inside his own penalty area. Leonardo Bonucci converted the spot-kick into a goal on his first trip to the penalty spot in his 11-year professional career — an act of supreme audacity, confidence and drama.
The teams’ respective ambition then receded like the tides, and they spent the next 40 minutes battling fatigue and each other and an effort to prevent giving away a fateful, tournament-ending goal.
Germany’s and Italy’s technical, tactical, physical and psychological strengths collided, and the reaction produced a game in which there were more yellow cards than shots on goal — seven to six. Both sides simply were too good to gain an edge over their opponent, and only penalty kicks could separate two of the soccer world’s traditional powers.
The shootout bordered on the absurd, starting with Simone Zaza’s ridiculous run up, continuing through Thomas Muller’s weak effort amid ongoing goal-scoring misery and Graziano Pelle’s and Bastian Schweinsteiger’s comical misses.
But the shooters found their form in the sudden-death rounds, converting all six attempts.
The shootout became the joint-longest in Euro history as it entered the ninth round. On center stage stood two of the world’s best goalkeepers: Italy’s Gigi Buffon and Germany’s Manuel Neuer.
Neuer adeptly saved Matteo Darmian’s effort. Jonas Hector shot under Buffon to bring the joy of six to Germany and symmetrical misery to Italy.
Here’s how Germany and Italy reached that point.
Ozil not just a set-up man
UEFA dubbed Ozil “Mr. Assists” in the build-up to the game, but the Germany playmaker reminded the world that his game also contains determination and work rate in scoring his first competitive goal since the 2014 World Cup.
Italy’s Old Guard comes up big when chips are down
Italy’s Buffon (38) Bonucci (29), Andrea Barzagli (35) and Chiellini (31) have played together for club, Juventus, and country for the last six years. The back-four veterans were immense throughout, but no more than after Ozil gave Germany the lead.
Had Buffon not saved Mario Gomez’s shot from point-blank range in the 68th minute, Italy would have been down by two and likely out of Euro 2016.
Chiellini and Bonucci (plus Boateng) were responsible for Italy’s game-tying goal. Who could have expected that to happen?
Perhaps we should have.
Thomas Muller can’t stop scoring at World Cups — 10 goals in 13 games. He can’t score in European Championships, having drawn blanks in 10 games, including all five in Euro 2016.
Thumbnail photo via Tim Groothuis/Witters Sport/USA TODAY Sports Images
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