Although Italy matched step, Germany continue to achieve under Loew
Germany lifted the “Italian curse” on Saturday by converting the 18th kick of one of the wildest shootouts in European Championship history, clinching a 6-5 victory and a place in the semifinals.Updated: Jul 03, 2016, 11:47 IST
World champions Germany beat Italy for the first time in nine games in a major international competition to enter the semifinals of Euro 2016 but for almost three hours and right down to some horrendous penalties, the Azzurri matched them step for step. That alone is proof how far they have progressed under Antonio Conte.
It was so close that had Gianluigi Buffon lowered his left arm a micro-second earlier, he would have saved Jonas Hector’s effort and the teams would have gone into Sunday morning in Bordeaux trying to resolve the deadlock. As it is, it took 18 penalties to decide the winner of the third quarterfinal.
Going into the match, Conte had described Germany as the most complete team, one that is almost like a club side. The last part of the analogy is important because that is exactly what Conte had aimed to build with Italy through rituals such as players kissing each other. They may seem bizarre but given how Italy played in this tournament, they sure worked.
After a 1-4 loss in a friendly to Germany last March, Conte had spoken of the chasm between the teams. But with a plan that could be executed by a team whose fitness and discipline compensated for the lack of Andrea Pirlo-like flair, the animated coach got them this close to sending Germany home. No wonder former Italy teammate Alessandro Costacurta said Conte is now the world’s best coach!
Given that it was a match between two astute coaches and their well-drilled teams, it was expected that goals would be hard to come by. Italy invited Germany forward, centre-back Mats Hummels, who will miss the semifinal with a booking, was often seen near the left edge of the Italy penalty area and it was his effort that initiated the first half’s best chance. It came in the 42nd minute and was wasted by Thomas Mueller whose shot was as weak as the penalty he took.
With Germany successfully closing out space, Italy couldn’t play the long ball to one of their wing-backs, the match was being played in Italy’s half. That Germany could do it without Sami Khedira, who was injured and replaced by Bastian Schweinsteiger who has had little game time for club and country, is just one example of the quality they have.
But, as if on cue after Mueller’s effort, Leonardo Bonucci found Emanuele Giaccherini with a pass similar to the one he scored against Belgium. This time, Giaccherini’s pass moved across the face of goal, reaching Stefano Sturaro whose shot took a deflection off Jerome Boateng and went out.
Germany showed why they are the world’s best after half-time, gradually turning the screws but Mueller was denied by an acrobatic goal-line clearance by Alessandro Florenzi in the 54th minute. Eleven minutes later, Germany scored through Mesut Ozil, the move being a lesson in transition play. Manuel Neuer found Mario Gomez wide on the left and the centre-forward played it to Hector who had moved down the inside channel. Hector’s square pass took a deflection but Ozil was at the right place at the right time to take advantage.
The match would perhaps have ended in regulation time with Gomez scoring the insurance goal in the 68th minute and his international career coming a full circle after being left out of the World Cup squad. But Buffon tipped the ball over even as he went down. Nearly a decade ago, he had pulled off a save that looked almost impossible and perhaps after that France and Zinedine Zidane lost their way in a World Cup final.
Italy were struggling to get close to scoring an equaliser when Jerome Boateng, perhaps the most reliable of Germany’s defensive quartet, did his scarecrow act. Bonucci converted the penalty and Italy ended regulation time looking the stronger of the teams.
But one of the things that makes this Germany team tick is their refusal to give up. “You lose only when you admit defeat,” said Arun Lal that doughty India and Bengal opening batsman at a function in Kolkata on Saturday evening. Hours later, Germany walked that talk. By then, Conte, whose energy on the touchline is reminiscent of another Antonio, a Spaniard who coached Atletico de Kolkata to the first Indian Super League title, looked spent.
Joachim Loew is not half as excitable; television cameras showed him winking, hands in trouser pockets during the penalties but after supervising another semifinal entry it may not be out of turn to ask whether this is the football powerhouse’s best international run. Since joining the national set-up as Juergen Klinsmann’s assistant after the 2004 Euros to succeeding him, Loew has taken Germany to the semifinals of the 2010 World Cup and the 2012 Euros. Add to that the 2008 Euro final and the 2014 World Cup title and you have a team for which this seems like a normal service.
Even the mighty West Germans under Franz Beckenbauer, with Gerd Mueller, Sepp Maier, Gunter Netzer and Paul Breitner didn’t dominate for this long. Now, Loew is two matches away from adding the European title to the World Cup.