KIEV, UKRAINE — Super Mario came good as Italy exploited an again complacent Germany to reach the Euro 2012 final, setting up a rematch of the tournament’s finest game.
Mario Balotelli put up the performance of the championship on Thursday, the striker’s pair of first-half goals leading Italy to a 2-1 victory over Germany. The Manchester City bad boy may have followed the script by ripping off his shirt after the second goal to be booked, but he showed just what he is capable of when under control with the faith of his coach and team, his breakout performance for the Azzurri signaling a bright future and a tough final for Spain on Sunday in Kiev.
Italy continued to wow while Germany was a victim of its own arrogance, failing to produce the thrilling football that had characterized it to now and produce the dream final we all expected. The Germans again wilted against a better team, something that might have been unfathomable once upon a time.
Germany seemed to show too much respect to an opponent, as it did in the Euro 2008 final and 2010 World Cup semifinal losses to Spain. Germany had thrilled then only to come up against the Spanish and seemingly bow down.
That happened against Italy.
While Germany had the best group stage record of any team, and it seemed to be coasting through the tournament, expectant of meeting Spain in the final. Perhaps the thought of vengeance against the Spanish distracted it from the task at hand, which was a rejuvenated Italy that has again risen when the odds were stacked against it.
A match-fixing scandal has shadowed it throughout the tournament in Poland and Ukraine, and yet Cesare Prandelli’s men are playing the most exciting football of the championship, simply because we did not expect such a showing from the Azzurri.
Here they are in Sunday’s final against Spain, against who they drew 1-1 against in the group stages. The lesson is clear: Bet on Italy when the odds are stacked against it.
Germany, which has never beaten Italy in a competitive fixture, seemingly always looked forward to a final against Spain, from the quarter-final victory over Greece when the three-time European champions made three changes to the lineup certain of victory while also looking to send a message to Spain. While the firepower was there, it just couldn’t compete with Balotelli.
Who could have thought that Balotelli, whose future at Manchester City looked dubious only weeks ago, and Andrea Pirlo, dismissed from AC Milan to lead Juventus to the Serie A title, would guide Italy so far at the tournament?
Two misfits — one forgotten, the other grounded — have provided the spark to Italy’s game.
Even Balotelli, who celebrated the win by hugging his adopted mother in the stands, wasn’t brandishing excuses after the match in Warsaw.
“(People say) when Italy win, it’s the other team that play bad. We win because we deserve it,” Balotelli said. “With Spain, we are the two best teams in the tournament.”
They certainly are. Spain has come under fire for not scoring goals, but no team apart from Italy has looked so self-assured in its play as the Spanish.
Germany looked frazzled after going 2-0 down and seemingly lost its way, abandoning the passing combinations in favour of long balls as it tried to rally. The only player that never lost hold of his identity was second half substitute Tomas Mueller, who was seen pounding his fists in the turf with questions swirling in his mind after the loss.
But Mueller must be asking himself what he has to do to help Germany win after another tough loss, which also came on the heels of Bayern Munich’s Champions League final defeat to Chelsea. Bayern must make sure its players don’t descend into a funk after another title slipped from its grasp.
So whether it’s Pirlo or Balotelli that delivers against Spain, the lesson seems obvious: They will both deliver, as they have all tournament.
Paul Logothetis is a Madrid-based reporter who is in Poland and Ukraine covering Euro 2012 for sportsnet.ca. Follow Paul on Twitter.