After a period of endless and apprehensive build up, today brought part three of the dramatic, decisive and altogether astounding production that was the quarter-finals of Euro 2016. It also brought together the two giants of European football and culture, the most successful duo of sides in terms of World Cup and European Championship history, with the nations being victorious in eight of the former (four each) and four of the latter (three for Die Mannschaft and the other for the Azzurri). It was possibly the favourites for the tournament against a fatally underrated team unit, it was sure to be a seismic clash of great talents that would bring big shocks, great goals and history-making action, if it lived up to the expectation at least. Bratwurst vs Salami, Potatoes vs Pasta, Gothic vs Renaissance, Efficiency vs Flair, Volkswagen, Audi and Mercedes vs Ferrari, Lamborghini and Bugatti, Einstein vs Da Vinci, Becks vs Peroni or Berlin vs Rome, however you wanted to match it up, it was always going to be a close battle. But culture counts for nothing on the football pitch, Iceland proved that much to England.
Everyone looked to the stat that Germany have never won once against Italy in eight international tournament matches, and history was not on Joachim Löw’s side, but you could be certain they would give their all as a side to grab that ground-breaking win on the record. In an attempt to change this record for the so-far outstanding Germans in this tournament, in came Benedikt Höwedes for the impressive Julian Draxler, with a surprising formation change from the traditional and successful 4-2-3-1 to a brave and more free-flowing 3-5-2, matching the Italians’ style. For their rivals in blue, there was just the single change, the decisively less imposing Stefano Sturaro coming in for the injured Daniele De Rossi, but he was sure to be just as up for the battle in midfield against the likes of Toni Kroos and Sami Khedira.
Predictably enough, play started out as nervy and tactically forthright from both sides, with Germany sticking to their guns, holding fire and using the ball wisely, whereas Italy fought and pressured the ball patiently. Tackles came in hard and fast, with the referee smartly deciding to remain lenient (within reason) in order to give the game some breathing space. Someone who did not benefit from the high-tempo, high-stakes style of the game was Sami Khedira, who was forced to go off early with a muscle issue, with elder statesman Bastian Schweinsteiger replacing him. Play ebbed and flowed between each side, with the Italian defence becoming a little more stretched with every attack Pelle and Eder took, which began to aid the Germans, who saw rays of light through the cloak the Italians place in front of goal. Schweinsteiger had a header ruled out for a push, and the Germans were growing in ascendancy, boosted by the vocal support of their passionate fans behind them. Manuel Neuer and Gianluigi Buffon soon became more important to their sides at hoofing the ball upfield rather than actually saving shots on goal, as the midfields soon took over the game, where nobody could really calmly keep the ball, with constant pressure on them. Pinballs were nicked, smacked and deflected across both 18-yard boxes towards the end of the half, as both teams became desperate for that vital goal, however unlikely that was against 10 players or so behind the ball. The half ended as a, let’s say, tedious stalemate, with no goals, only a single shot on target and two copy-and-paste systems cancelling each other out. To put it kindly, it was definitely the sort of game for old-fashioned defenders. Two highly organised nations of great skill, who didn’t want to showcase their creativity in fear of the human walls in front of them.
The vital links in the divisive formation of 3-5-2, from my perspective at least, are the wing backs, and for any sides to succeed in this style, they have to utilise pace, stamina and technical ability along the flanks, as well as a big helping of determination. Unfortunately enough, in the first half at least, neither the pairing of Kimmich and Hector, nor de Sciglio and Florenzi, showed quite enough of what they have in bucket loads of these attributes. For the second 45 minutes, we had to see more from these players to result in at least one goal for either of the sides, with a higher tempo in particular.
Well, if it was a faster, more open match that we wanted, it was certainly delivered at the start of the second half, with Thomas Mueller denied by a great mid-air Florenzi clearance from an arguably goal bound shot during a pulsating move forward by a finally positive Germany. Joachim Löw’s side held their defensive line much higher, putting immediate and impending pressure on their defensively-content opponents, encouraging rash fouls and yellow cards for Sturaro, de Sciglio and Marco Parolo in the space of about 10 minutes. The German mastermind must’ve loved it, winding up the opposition by playing on their aggressive tendency, making the game much more high-risk, which played into the World champions’ hands. This was a game tactically worthy of a final, with tension aplenty.
Just as I thought the game was going to settle down again into a laborious deadlock, Germany broke away. Mario Gomez escaped with the ball down the left hand side, in the absence of any teammates around him poked it forward around Florenzi, and sprinted fast enough to catch it up, play it smartly to Hector, who only needed to apply the low cross towards an adequately collected Mesut Özil to provide the finish. It was a similarly simple goal to the one scored by Mario Götze two years ago in the World Cup final, and it was potentially just as vital a finish to the hopes of winning a tournament for those in Deutschland.
But just when we thought Germany had this game sealed, considering Italy are not too proficient in front of goal, a penalty was awarded. In unbelievable circumstances. After Jerome Boateng conceded a corner by confiscating the ball away from goal, the very same man brought the ball a whole lot closer to goal with a very, very contentious handball. From the corner, Pelle’s backwards header hit a crazily wide-leaping Boateng, who effectively star jumped in the air directly behind the Italian striker in an attempt to put him off, straight on the arm. Now, it was a ball that certainly hit Boateng on the arm, and Boateng did put his hands up, but he never expected to get his hands anywhere near it, and was a ruler’s width away from Pelle’s head, so I can’t agree with the referee on that one. Anyway, Leonardo Bonucci tucked the penalty away with a no-nonsense, emphatic finish typical of an old-fashioned centre-back, right in the bottom corner where Neuer stood no chance of reaching it.
Soon, both sides resigned themselves to the dreaded extra-time, with little in the way of clear cut chances, and subs being saved for the added 30 minutes, although Matteo Darmian did come on for Florenzi. Both sides were physically drained, but they were desperate to keep putting one foot in front of the other in order for their team to turn out victorious. No one player wanted to come off, and both managers pumped up their players to stick to the game plans and stay motivated. If staying motivated meant stepping on the opposition’s ankles, Graziano Pelle certainly showed it straight away, gaining a yellow card (ruling him out of the semi-final) for his stamp on Boateng. There turned out to be little in chances during the first half of the 30 minutes, but at least the statisticians were kept happy by the number of passes and interceptions each set of eleven players had. You sensed the two teams were running on close to empty, but the fuel gauge was a slight deceiver, as they both definitely had a little more to give going forward and back, it wasn’t over yet.
Finally, a substitute came on in an attempt to liven a game (enforced though it was), Lorenzo Insigne replacing an injured Eder. Even that was a slightly negative change though, bringing on a winger for a striker. It seemed the Italians were only too happy to take the game to penalties, building an unbreakable, immovable bedrock of players between Buffon and the German midfield, who had been off-colour for the whole match. In the end, eventually for all of us watching it, extra time finished just as it started, and we were heading to penalties.
Both groups of horribly tight-knit players, subs and coaches (England take note) came together in their huddles, decided on their orders and chanted each other on, in a deliberate show of unity to the opposition. Sub Insigne stepped up first against Neuer from the spot, and confidently flighted the ball into the right. Kroos did the same, but in the opposite corner, and got the same response; goal. Simone Zaza approached with a horrible and childish skipping run up, and smashed it high and wide. Advantage Germany, but Mueller, surely the most dependable option, struck his with little power straight into the body of Buffon. Barzagli hit a powerful one down the middle past Neuer, and Özil responded with a strike onto the right post and out. Pelle should’ve put given Italy an almost unassailable lead, but he stupidly dragged his effort wide of the left post. Draxler finally scored for the Germans, and Neuer dragged it equal, to give his side the opportunity to win it. Schweinsteiger, captain and leader, then deserved to finish it, but he spooned his effort well over the crossbar. Unbelievable. Bonucci then messed up his good name at penalties with a weak one for Neuer to claim. Hummels passed up another chance to win. Parolo then restarted the scoring. Young Joshua Kimmich tucked an effort just past Buffon, only for de Sciglio to just scrape an effort in to continue proceedings. Boateng then powered one past Buffon to keep his side in it. Darmian, our Italian hero at Manchester United, then ruined the good run by hitting one straight at Neuer. Jonas Hector finally put the tie to bed, and put the marathon penalty shoot-out to bed too (I was hoping to see the goalies take one, but it wasn’t to be) with a composed low finish, just under Buffon.
It was finely settled, in dramatic, tight fashion, just in the style of the match itself. I was thankful for it in the end, I don’t think my heart could’ve gone on for much longer with it all.
Team of the Day
Germany, however much they struggled and faltered, did in the end come out victors, and you cannot deny that they deserved it in the end.
Player of the Day
In my opinion, Jerome Boateng stood out as a leading man for his side today, as he cleaned up every chance that came Italy’s way, clearing with accuracy when required, and brutality when not, judging each situation to its needs. He mixed physicality with quick thinking, picking up players when his other two centre backs couldn’t, organising and assigning roles to his teammates in the box. He also controlled the ball and slowed down play when he had to, keeping possession handily for his side, taking sacrifices and responsibilities for his teammates in an unselfish manner. Yes, he may have given a penalty away for his side, but there was little he could do about that, and he more than redeemed himself when he scored a vital penalty right at the death for his country.
Goal of the Day
Bonucci’s was just a penalty, so I’ll have to go for Özil’s, no matter how lucky or ugly it was.
Shock of the Day
The number of shocking penalties really! Pelle, Zaza, Schweinsteiger, Mueller and Darmian, all struck stupid, mindless penalties with the same result; misses. I thought Italy and Germany were supposed to be the most clinical and proficient sides from 12 yards in the world, let alone Europe! Modern players just can’t hit ‘em like they’re supposed to I guess.
Day Rating: 7/10
I’m Looking Forward to…
A hopefully more open match between confident, jam-packed full of talent hosts France and courageous, plan-scuppering (hmph) minnows Iceland! I think we’ll all be wishing to see one of the two sides earn their keep in the semi-finals by even beginning to play well, close to their full potential. Have a good rest for now though, eh, and prepare for another edge-of-the-seat battle between two very competitive sides.
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!