FOX Soccer Exclusive
Majestic Italy exceeds expectations
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Italy made hard work of it Sunday night, but it is through to the semifinals of Euro 2012 — and deservedly so — after victory on penalties over England. Alessandro Diamanti showed great poise to strike home the decisive spot kick in Kiev and booked his team a place on a flight to Warsaw where it will face Germany on Thursday.
For a time, though, it really felt like it wouldn’t be Italy’s night and that it would be made to rue missed chances. One opportunity after another went begging; Daniele De Rossi sliced a long-range effort against the upright; Mario Balotelli skied an effort over the bar from five yards among other spurned attempts; Diamanti curled a shot past the post in extra time; Antonio Nocerino had a headed goal disallowed in extra time.
Football’s Gods appeared to be smiling on England and a repeat of Chelsea’s backs-to-the-wall path to improbable glory in the Champions League last month seemed to be the more likely outcome. Let it not be forgotten that Italy’s past record in penalties is hardly better than that of its opponents. While it won the World Cup from the spot in 2006, it’s also true it has prevailed in only two of its last seven.
Italy did not want it to go this way. “It would definitely be better for all of us to try to close out the match beforehand,” Buffon said earlier this week, “but if it goes to penalties so be it.”
Italy tried everything to win in normal time. From the second half onwards, its domination was near total. But Italy huffed and puffed and still couldn’t blow the house down, holding 68-percent possession of the ball. Italy completed 744 of 833 passes and no fewer than 36 shots were fired in England’s direction. Tellingly only eight were on target, which again brings us back to the difficulty Italy have had throughout Euro 2012 in converting the many openings it creates.
Even so, Andrea Pirlo was majestic Sunday night. At times, it felt as though he was not wearing a football uniform at all but rather a tuxedo and waving a baton, as he conducted an orchestra from midfield. It was one of the performances of the competition so far. Pirlos’s icing on the cake was his exquisite Antonin Panenka-inspired chipped penalty.
Stepping up to take his after Riccardo Montolivo had missed and Wayne Rooney’s shot to make it 2-1 to England’s favor, Pirlo’s spot kick drew Italy level. But, perhaps, more significantly, the coolness of it seemed to restore a sense of calm to his teammates and unsettle their opponents. One can only imagine what was running through the head of the next taker, Ashley Young, on seeing the unflappable Pirlo dink the ball teasingly into the middle of the net. Is it any wonder in this game of psychological brinkmanship that Young then folded and hit the bar?
Reflecting on Italy’s display, manager Cesare Prandelli can again feel vindicated. His decision to repudiate the country’s tradition of playing defensive, counter-attacking football and instead implement a more positive, attacking approach that seeks to entertain the public is worthy of commendation. Many neutrals have been won over by Italy and spoken of how they enjoyed watching them, for instance, against Spain.
Prandelli has presented a different Italy to the world, one that better represents and chimes with a country’s wide creative heritage, appreciable in its contributions to art, fashion and manufacturing. From that perspective, their Euro 2012 campaign already deserves to be considered a relative success.
After all, Italy started out in this competition amid low expectations; its preparations were overshadowed by scandal; their squad depleted by injury; and accordingly many of the best laid plans Prandelli had settled upon through qualifying went awry and needed a last minute review. At the time, La Gazzetta dello Sport wrote: “If you’re going to Poland don’t book beyond June 18, the last day of the group stages.” Well, to their immense credit, they’ve lasted well beyond that point.
Now a semifinal with Germany awaits Italy. While the consensus among many of those watching is that they’ll be the underdogs, it’s worth recalling that their past encounters are better remembered in Rome, Naples, Turin and Milan than in Berlin, Munich, Dortmund and Hamburg. The reason for that is simple: Italy have never once lost to Germany in a major tournament. As far as they’re concerned, there are nothing but good memories to draw upon; a 3-1 triumph in the 1982 World Cup final — immortalized by Marco Tardelli’s ecstatic goal celebration — and, more recently, a 2-0 victory in extra time in the 2006 World Cup semifinal — sealed by Alessandro Del Piero on a thrilling breakaway.
Italy is Germany’s bogey team. The question is can they remain as such or will the hold be lifted?
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