Germans overcome the Italian hoodoo

Germany looked the strongest at the start of the match and its toughness and a whole bit of luck saw it overcome the Italian challenge after the teams matched each other, blow for blow, in 120 minutes of football.

German players celebrate after winning the EURO 2016 quarterfinal match against Italy, via the shootout, at the Nouveau Stade in Bordeaux, France, on Saturday.   -  AP

Mesut Ozil (second from left) scores to put Germany ahead against Italy in a EURO 2016 quarterfinal fixture.   -  AP

Germany, officially, has passed its toughest test in the European Championship, albeit after suffering plenty of battle scars. It will be difficult to see Germany lose the cup from here. But this competition has taught teams not to be complacent and Joachim Loew will do well to remind his team that.

As I had written in > Sportstar earlier, Germany looked the strongest at the start of the meet and its toughness and a whole bit of luck saw it overcome the Italian challenge after the teams matched each other, blow for blow, in 120 minutes of football.

 

This was a tactical battle of the highest quality — a game which probably impressed the analysts more than the ordinary football fans sitting in front of their tellies.

The game, though, finally ended in a comedy of errors, with both teams competing against the other to make a shootout look like the most complicated thing in the world. The presence of football’s two outstanding shot-stoppers in goal, Manuel Neuer and Gianluigi Buffon, will surely have played a role in sending tectonic pulses through the nerves of the game’s premier players.

Only 11 of the 18 efforts were converted. The often atrocious efforts showed that even the best-paid players are afflicted by fragile nerves in important competitions. The burden of carrying the hopes of a nation is not an easy one and it is important to separate the thought of the outcome and your role, as you walk towards the penalty spot.

It is perhaps the longest walk for a footballer and demons are bound to creep in when you feel the stare of the whole world. Mesut Ozil, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Thomas Muller, with a combined experience of 274 international matches, felt the heat, as they fluffed their chances. Muller’s miss from Germany's second spot-kick was the nation's first miss in a shootout since Uli Stielike fluffed against France in the 1982 World Cup semifinal. Muller's failure ended Germany's run of 22 successful spot-kicks in shootouts.

 

Germany's failure, however, was not magnified, as the youngsters in Loew’s team, Jonas Hector, Joshua Kimmich and Julian Draxler, stepped in to send their nation to a sixth consecutive semifinal of a major tournament, beating Italy, its hoodoo team, on the ninth attempt in a major competition.

The end of the nervy battle left the Italians in tears, but Germany will draw confidence from the near-death experience. The German fortitude, the team’s ability to bounce back from the troughs, helped it to emerge winner. The experience will only further add to the German psyche of invincibility with one thorn out of its way, and Loew will fancy his chances of adding the European crown to his World Cup glory. It, now, remains the firm favourite to lift the cup at the Stade de France.

The manager, earlier, had paid the price for altering his system against Italy, bringing in central midfielder Toni Kroos, replacing the attacking prowess of winger Marco Reus, in the EURO semifinal in 2012. Germany lost 2-1. The German manager again tinkered with his system here in Bordeaux — sacrificing a winger, Julian Draxler, to bring in an extra centre-back in Benedikt Howedes. Germany replaced its 4-2-3-1 formation with Mario Gomez and Muller leading the line. But as the match progressed, Loew’s setup almost mirrored Antonio Conte’s 3-5-2 formation — it was not a 4-4-2 as the television screens suggested — with Howedes playing as the right centre-back in a three-man defence with, Kimmich (right) and Hector (left) playing as wing-backs. The move essentially was to pack more bodies ahead of the German goal, allowing little space behind the defence for the Italian forwards, Eder and Pelle. It was an interesting battle down the flanks with Kimmich and Hector getting into a battle of attrition with the two Italian wide men, Di Sciglio and Florenzi.

The change in formation from the world champion was a victory for Conte, who has drawn praise from all quarters for his astute team settings, bringing out the best of his sparsely talented team. The Italian will bring a strong work ethic to Stamford Bridge, and utility players will thrive under him. Chelsea, which often looked disjointed under Jose Mourinho (before his sacking) last season, will strive for a collective approach, junking theories of individual brilliance. His work with Eden Hazard, who has failed in a team setup with Belgium, will be crucial for the player’s and his national team’s development. It will be , however, interesting to see what formation he adopts.

In the first half, both sides, European and World heavyweights, pressed heavily in the midfield, trying to stifle each other. The German centre-back, Jerome Boateng, kept a close eye on Pelle as striking partner, Eder, played deeper, shadowing Germany’s own version of regista, Toni Kroos, in the centre of the field.

The forced change to replace an injured Daniele de Rossi, Italy’s deep-lying playmaker, with Marco Parolo, however, soon took its toll. The Lazio medio battled gamely, but Italy was missing the quality and tactical acumen of de Rossi or Thiago Motta (suspended) and the Germans slowly started (particularly after the restart) asserting their numerical superiority in the middle third of the pitch. Not overawed by the physicality of Conte’s men, Germany roughed it out, fighting for ball and space.

Gomez, enjoying a renaissance tournament, added more thrust to the team’s play, exposing tired legs in the Italian defence. The striker's pass from the left flank (it was a surprise to see him wide there), was squared inside the box by overlapping Hector and Ozil arrived down the middle to beat Gigi Buffon in the 65th minute.

Germany, showing its class, tightened the screws and a few smart saves from Buffon kept Italy in the game. A moment of madness from Boateng, who ungainly defended with his arms held high, gave the underdog a chance in the fight. The referee, Viktor Kassai, who was always close at hand and let the game run its course, pointed to the spot and Bonucci coolly slotted the equaliser past Neuer.

The game was then destined to go to the penalties and unluckily for the Italians, their nerves were more frayed than their German counterparts.