Cometh the hour, cometh the Mario. He has displayed some ridiculous tendencies for childish behaviour over his short career to date, but Mario Balotelli came of age…
…right in front of the watching eyes of the world in Warsaw last night when his first-half brace earned Italy a 2-1 win over Germany to send the Azzurri through to Sunday’s Euro 2012 final against Spain.
It was far from a one-man show, with the magnificent Andrea Pirlo untouchable at times, quite literally, to further emphasise that the cliché about the first two yards being in your head might have a legitimate basis, while Andrea Barzagli and Leonardo Bonucci revelled in every challenge they were forced to make by an increasingly desperate German attack as the clocked ticked down on yet another occasion on which they had lost out to Italy in a competitive fixture, but make no mistake, this was Balotelli’s night and will rightly be remembered as such.
The opening exchanges had promised so much more for this lauded German team, after only five minutes an uncharacteristically nervy Gianluigi Buffon flapped at a corner from the left and palmed it into the path of Mats Hummels but although the defender didn’t connect cleanly with his effort the ball would still have bounced in were it not for Pirlo’s positioning on the post. A cross from Jerome Boateng on the opposite side also caused minor panic for the Italian stopper early on as his bungled attempt to deal with it in the six-yard box rebounded off Barzagli and out for a corner, but could just as easily have bobbled in.
Pirlo’s vision and precision was fully evident in the 20th minute though when his pass out for Giorgio Chiellini found the Juventus defender in space as he broke past the halfway line on the left. Chiellini fed Antonio Cassano just outside the German penalty area but he didn’t have to work very hard to beat Boateng or Hummels – who badly undermined the rave reviews earned previously in the tournament with an inexplicably poor attempt to stop the player or win the ball – and Cassano was suddenly at the byline with a great opportunity to deliver. He did just that with a finely curled cross that Balotelli met cleanly at the near post as he rose above Holger Badstuber to thump a header high into the net and well out of Manuel Neuer’s reach.
Germany’s eagerness to get back into the game quickly was clear and Buffon was back to his best when he saved a rasping volley from Sami Khedira and effectively dealt with the resulting corner as his punch cleared the area, but Joachim Loew’s young team had been over zealous in throwing caution to the wind and the Italian’s counter attack was as clinical as it was ruthless.
Riccardo Montolivo collected Buffon’s clearance toward the left touchline about 30 yards from his own goal and the midfielder’s ambitions were anything but conservative as he took the time to look up before flighting a wonderful ball over the top to Balotelli, who had broken the offside trap. The Manchester City striker found himself in similar scenarios against Spain and England already in this tournament when it appeared as though he had wanted too much time on the ball and allowed backtracking defenders to intervene, but the outcome couldn’t have been more emphatic here as Balotelli spun and took one touch with his left to get it out of his feet and into his stride before pulverising a right-footed shot from just outside the area which Neuer could only blink at as it tore past him and into the top corner on the near side.
As if bound by their stereotype, the German’s responded bravely, with captain Philipp Lahm shooting over from a good position early in the second half and substitute Marco Reus forcing a good save from Buffon, but it looked a forlorn conclusion, as even when Mesut Ozil converted a penalty after Federico Balzaretti’s handball it was already two minutes into stoppages that would soon come to an end, just as their tournament, and 15-game winning streak was destined to do too.
His double put Balotelli into a remarkable five-way tie at the top of the Golden Boot charts but with all of the other contenders on three goals now eliminated from the competition the enigmatic 21-year-old’s fate is in his own hands, the fate of the tournament might lie with him also.