Balotelli 20' 36'
Özil 90+2' (pen)
The Mario Balotelli show. Mario Balotelli, and Italy's defense. The more things change...
This time, Jogi Löw's personnel switches didn't work. Gómez and Podolski returned to the starting XI, along with Kroos, going with experience and Kroos' extra effort in midfield in an obvious effort to stifle Pirlo. All understandable changes, even if I'm perpetually dubious of Podolski, but needless to say, it did not work as planned.
But before Super Mario could save the Princess, Pirlo had to clear a corner off his goal-line, while Buffon parried a cross onto Barzagli, trickling behind the goal rather than into his own net, then saved a fierce shot from Kroos. Italy lived dangerously for the first 15 minutes, but then punished Germany's profligacy with supreme finishing of their own.
There were individual errors we can point to on both goals, but that takes nothing away from the creation or execution of either. For the first, Hummels was beaten too easily by Cassano's ballet, a wonderful spin and cross with his weaker foot, while Balotelli effortlessly out-jumped Badstuber for a bullet header. 16 minutes later, after yet another failed German corner, Italy immediately transitioned to attack through Montolivo's long pass, with nearly every German defender still in Italy's half. Balotelli's run was perfectly timed, splitting Podolski and Lahm, the former stepping forward with the latter playing Balotelli onside. Neither – nor Schweinsteiger – could recover, as Balotelli's sprinted towards Neuer before unleashing an impossible, unstoppable, utterly perfect shot. Those two completely different but similarly jaw-dropping strikes aptly demonstrate why both Manchester City and Italy put up with his less productive antics.
Löw attempted to rectify his errors with two half-time substitutions, replacing Gómez and Podolski with Klose and Reus. But, thanks to the two-goal lead, Italy's defending was the second half star. This wasn't your father's Azzurri, wholly reliant on stingy catenaccio, but the Italians still had an answer for every question Germany asked, vacuuming up pressure before launching counter-attacks.
Germany started the second half almost as brightly as the first, but Lahm shot over after a one-two with Kroos, Italy's swarming defense ensured Khedira couldn't fashion a shot after Özil's burst to the byline, and Buffon brilliantly saved Reus' vicious dipping free kick.
From there, and until Germany's late penalty, Italy looked the more likely to notch the game's next goal. The Germans may be renowned for their counter-attack, but Italy were nearly as effective thanks to Germany's increasing desperation, in everything but the finishing. The finishing was what separated the first and second halves, what separated today's performance from the quarter-final struggle against England.
Diamanti, on in place of Cassano in the 57th, was at the center of the first two chances, releasing Marchisio twice, but the midfielder screwed his shot across the face of goal both times. Di Natale beat Germany's offside trap in the 82nd but shot into the side-netting; Balzaretti had the ball in the net a minute later but was offside. Throwing the kitchen sink finally paid off in injury time with a soft penalty for a Balzaretti handball, Özil notching the spot kick, but it was too little, too late, an unlucky blot on an otherwise-spotless Italian record.
Once again, Cesare Prandelli out-coaches his opponent. Italy's tactics were flawless, and fully merit the victory. Pirlo was rendered less influential by Germany's midfield, but others – specifically De Rossi and Montolivo – compensated. The new back four, with Chiellini returning at left back, shifting Balzaretti over to the right, worked to perfection. Germany were unable to take advantage of Chiellini out wide because of Kroos and Özil's focus on playing in the middle, while Balzaretti was able to cancel out Podolski then Kroos as an "inverted" fullback against players who specialize in cutting in from the flank. Ignoring the temptation to remove Bonucci or Barzagli in favor of Chiellini allowed those two to continue their excellent pairing, neither giving Gómez or Klose a glimpse all game.
Now, we get a replay of the first match in Group C. Spain versus Italy. Can Spain win its third tournament in a row, something that hasn't been done since the 1930s? How will Del Bosque avoid using an out-and-out striker this time? Why are Italy always so much better at tournaments after a Serie A scandal? Will Prandelli revert to the three-at-the-back which stifled Spain for long stretches or continue to dance with what brung them? Can Balotelli do that or that again?
Someone has to win this meeting. Sunday can't come soon enough.