OK, Germany couldn’t quite beat Italy inside the ninety minutes or even extra time, but a messy penalty shootout victory will do. At the ninth attempt, the Italian curse has been broken. True to expectations, the encounter in Bordeaux was a classic drama in every other sense of the word – finishing with a final act that bordered on the farcical.
Apart from the first-time penalty shootout, it was a typical clash between the two old rivals, with all of the usual ingredients.
At times, I wondered whether would survive that penalty shootout. I had not seen a German player miss in a shootout since Uli Stielike’s scratchy effort in Seville in 1982 against France, but then had to endure Thomas Müller’s weak effort and Mesut Özil crack his spot-kick against the post.
Then, just as thought it was going to be another fairytale Bastian Schweinsteiger winning moment, the skipper almost comically scooped his kick high over the crossbar and into the arms of a gleeful Italian supporter.
You couldn’t have written a more horrible script. As penalty shootouts go it was an absolute farce, but having seen it a couple of times since you can definitely see the funny side.
Thankfully, the Italian penalties were even worse. Simone Zaza‘s kick was the stuff of comedy, while Graziano Pellè’s effort was arguably even worse that singer Diana Ross’s spot-kick at the opening ceremony for the 1994 World Cup. Though Pellè’s Elfmeter fortunately didn’t break the goal frame in two.
I can only thank the fates that Matteo Darmian’s penalty was easy for Manuel Neuer, and that Gianluigi Buffon was not a fraction of a second earlier in hitting the deck when facing Jonas Hector‘s ultimately decisive kick. I don’t think I’d have survived to see Benedikt Höwedes step up to take the next one.
The final result was a case of the ends clearly justifying the means, as just like in 2012 Nationaltrainer Jogi Löw bamboozled everybody with another tactical change.
The Nationaltrainer had played a 4-2-3-1 system for the first four matches, initially starting out with Mario Götze as a false nine – an approach that was deemed unfit for purpose after two relatively disappointing returns of the opening two matches against Ukraine and Poland. While the framework was retained, Götze was pushed out onto the wing for the third match against Northern Ireland. The more orthodox number nine Mario Gómez was restored to the starting lineup, with Julian Draxler the man to miss out.
Another disappointing show from Götze saw a rejuvenated Draxler brought back into the side for the second round match against Slovakia, and it finally looked as though the last pieces of the puzzle had been put into place. There was a sense of equilibrium about the team, and the return of some of that old-fashioned swagger too.
However, just as things had appeared to have hit the right notes, the “Maharishi Jogi” would throw us all into confusion with a new 3-5-2 formation – an approach designed around and to counter the Italians rather than play to his own team’s strengths.
Much had been made by the media of the footage of Löw scratching and sniffing his nether regions; I was surely not the only one to suggest that if he threw this match away, he would have been eating Eier for breakfast the following morning. Cue the expected big dollop of opprobrium from the likes of former skipper Michael Ballack and Euro 1996 winner Mehmet Scholl.
The tactical rearrangement saw Benedikt Höwedes back in a new Dreierkette alongside Jérôme Boateng and Mats Hummels, Jonas Hector and Joshua Kimmich employed as dedicated wing-backs to counter the Italian threat on the flanks, with the unfortunate Draxler back on the bench.
For many this was a defensive overload, and to nobody’s great surprise it took all of the bite out of the German attack. In fairness, the Italian game was completely stifled – the German coach was probably right in his post-match assessment that the Azzurri would never have scored from open play – but one has to wonder if things might have been easier had the team been ordered to keep calm and carry on as before.
Not that it matters one jot right now. The Italian curse has been broken, the azure blue monkey has been thrown off the German back, and the Mannschaft are into the last four.
Facts and Stats
I don’t think we need to go over and revisit the statistics too heavily, given that they pretty much defined everything before kick-off. Eight competitive matches, no German victories, a long litany of footballing pain. I have written about it at length, and having finally flipped the beast on its back there’s no need to run over it again. Just have a bowl of pasta instead.
The last meeting between the teams had taken place just over three months earlier in Munich where the Mannschaft had subjected Antonio Conte’s men to a emphatic 4-1 thrashing, but nobody in their right mind could have hoped for a repeat of that.
Italy might have been turned over by the likes of North Korea, Slovakia and the Republic of Ireland in major tournaments, but when they play Germany they have always brought their A Game.
As soon as the whistle blew to signal the end of extra time, every statistician knew that something had to give, and that one of two long-standing records had to be broken. Either Germany would finally break their competitive duck against Italy, or the Italians would end the Mannschaft’s long run of penalty shootout victories.
An inconsolable Uli Stielike, head in his hands, is consoled by ‘keeper Toni Schumacher after missing his penalty in the 1982 World Cup semi-final in Seville. Moments later Schumacher hauled his team mate off the ground, with Germany going on to score their remaining three spot-kicks and win the shootout
I have already mentioned the penalty shootout statistics, and the unfortunate Thomas Müller being the first German player to miss since 1982. Since Stielike’s shot was saved in Seville by French ‘keeper Jean-Luc Ettori, twenty-two consecutive penalties had been successfully converted.
1. Pierre Littbarski v France, World Cup 1982 SF
2. Karl-Heinz Rummenigge v France, World Cup 1982 SF
3. Horst Hrubesch v France, World Cup 1982 SF
4. Klaus Allofs v Mexico, World Cup 1986 QF
5. Andreas Brehme v Mexico, World Cup 1986 QF
6. Lothar Matthäus v Mexico, World Cup 1986 QF
7. Pierre Littbarski v Mexico, World Cup 1986 QF
8. Andreas Brehme v England, World Cup 1990 SF
9. Lothar Matthäus v England, World Cup 1990 SF
10. Karlheinz Riedle v England, World Cup 1990 SF
11. Olaf Thon v England, World Cup 1990 SF
12. Thomas Häßler v England, Euro 1996 SF
13. Thomas Strunz v England, Euro 1996 SF
14. Stefan Reuter v England, Euro 1996 SF
15. Christian Ziege v England, Euro 1996 SF
16. Stefan Kuntz v England, Euro 1996 SF
17. Andreas Möller v England, Euro 1996 SF
18. Oliver Neuville v Argentina, World Cup 2006 QF
19. Michael Ballack v Argentina, World Cup 2006 QF
20. Lukas Podolski v Argentina, World Cup 2006 QF
21. Tim Borowski v Argentina, World Cup 2006 QF
22. Toni Kroos v Italy, Euro 2016 QF
Before the shootout against Italy, the record had stood at twenty-one – with Toni Kroos extending it to twenty-two. Then came Müller, whose weak shot was easily parried by Italian ‘keeper Buffon, who became the first opposition goalie to keep out a German shootout penalty since Ettori thirty-four years earlier – when Buffon was just four years old.
Thomas Müller trudges back to the centre circle after missing his penalty, the first shootout blank for Germany in a shootout since Uli Stielike’s in the World Cup in 1982
The current, reset German record now stands at four penalties: Hummels, Kimmich, Boateng, Hector.
Germany would in the end extend their record to a sixth consecutive shootout triumph, with the long string of successful spot-kick conversions ending at twenty-two. Records are there to be broken, but I can say with some confidence that this will be a hard one for any other team to equal.
Meanwhile, the two new entries to the all-time appearances table continue to climb. Mesut Özil moved onto 78 caps, and will match the record of Thorsten Frings if he plays against France in the semi-final. Thomas Müller, having reached the 75-cap mark at the age of just twenty-six, is now level with Toni Schumacher and Guido Buchwald on 76.
Özil’s goal against Italy was his twentieth in the Nationaltrikot.
With the German formation essentially mirroring their opponents, both teams did an excellent job of cancelling each other out. The Italians were unable to play same game as that had allowed them to dominate Spain in the previous round, while the Mannschaft were also stifled in midfield.
Jogi Löw’s side were more than happy to keep hold of the ball and bide their time, but had to start rethinking when Sami Khedira was forced to withdraw with not even a quarter of an hour on the clock. Bastian Schweinsteiger slotted smoothly into place, but there was a noticeable drop in energy.
Neither keeper was tested during the first forty-five minutes, but Thomas Müller would have a wonderful opportunity three minutes before half-time to put Germany in front. The ball arrived at his feet more by good fortune than design, and it was the sort of chance that an in-form Müller would have put away with his eyes closed. Instead, he scuffed the ball harmlessly into the arms of Gigi Buffon.
The second half started off a little brighter, but the war of attrition continues. Toni Kroos was his usual metronomic self without ever really dominating, and sparks of brightness from Mesut Özil quickly fizzled out in the face of a well-drilled Italian back line.
When the breakthrough finally came, it was all down to one man: Gómez. After Alessandto Florenzi failed to get under a long punt up the field by Neuer, the big striker chased down the ball, kept it in touch, and then held it up brilliantly as reinforcements arrived in the form of the fast-advancing Jonas Hector. Gómez followed his run with a deft reverse pass, and suddenly the Germans had a man behind the Italian defence. Hector put the ball into the box via a slight deflection off Leonardo Bonucci, and Özil did the rest.
Having finally breached the blue wall, it looked as though the Mannschaft could have wrapped things up. Were it not for Buffon, who pulled off a miraculous save to keep out Gómez’s audacious backheeled attempt, they would have done. When Gómez became the second German player to hobble off injured after seventy-six minutes, the Mannschaft’s sense of ambition and desire to kill the game off noticeably dimmed.
It would not have been an Germany versus Italy match without the usual drama however, and with twelve minutes left the Azzurri were presented with a way back into the match. Florenzi’s cross was curled into the box towards Giorgio Chiellini, only to hit Boateng on the arm. Only the central defender will know why he was flailing his arms like a dying swan – perhaps it was an obvious attempt to show that he was not looking to put a hand on the Italian – but when the ball ricocheted off his chest he knew that there were no grounds for complaint.
Referee Viktor Kassai correctly pointed to the penalty spot, and Bonucci found the bottom right-hand corner as the Italians gratefully grabbed their lifeline.
Italy showed far more ambition in the final twelve minutes than they had done in the previous seventy-eight, but as the final minutes of the ninety drew to a close both teams seemed prepared for extra time. The additional half an hour, not surprisingly, were pedestrian at best. With so much at stake, neither side were willing to take too big a risk.
Germany and Italy had been just two minutes from a penalty shootout in Dortmund in 2006, but this time there was no extra time sting in the tail. For the first time, this classic fixture would be decided from the Elfmeterpunkt.
The shootout started conventionally enough, with the opening kicks being summarily dispatched. Then, the silliness began. Simone Zaza, brought on for the purpose of taking a penalty, launched his effort high over the bar after taking a run up that was pure slapstick. Then came Müller, who showed just how allergic he is at the moment to strike the ball cleanly, let alone put it in the back of the net.
Andrea Barzagli put the Italians in front again before Özil fluffed his second penalty of the tournament by hitting the post, only to Pellè to give us his Diana Ross impression. Draxler, on for the injured Gómez, restored some order with what was arguably the best spot-kick of the evening, and when Bonucci was brilliantly foiled by Neuer the Mannschaft were back in the driving seat. One more on target, and they were in the final.
Step up Bastian Schweinsteiger. The captain, the oldest German player on the pitch, and by far the most experienced. Surely, he was going to hit the back of the net. Moments later, the ball was in the hands of a smiling Italian supporter. The drama was set to go on as the players not expecting to take a penalty slowly stepped up, one by one.
With the top five penalty takers out of the way, things started to look more like a Germany v Italy shootout. Italy kept nudging in front, with the German players responding to the pressure. 2-3. 3-3. 3-4. 4-4. 4-5. 5-5.
Then, another break. A weak kick from Matteo Darmian, and Neuer doing what he does best. Where Schweinsteiger had failed, Hector succeeded. Just. The ball squirmed under Buffon’s body, the back of the net rippled gently, and the beaming Hector charged back down the pitch towards his ecstatic team mates.
Victory at last. Jonas Hector meets the rest of the team in the middle of the pitch after scoring the winning penalty, emulating Horst Hrubesch, Pierre Littbarski and Andreas Möller
Conclusions and Ratings
In what was a tightly contested match between two excellent teams, it was always going to be a tactical struggle – especially after the personnel and organisational changes made by Jogi Löw. Chances were few until Germany opened the scoring, but Buffon showed just how good he is by keeping Gómez out – and his team in the the contest.
Italy did not ever look like threatening the German goal from open play, and yet one sensed that something was going to happen. Somehow, by hook or by crook, we all knew that they would find a way back into the game. There was a sense of inevitability about the penalty kick just twelve minutes from time. This was Italy, stretching our nerves and forcing us to sit on our hands as they always do.
The discussion over the tactical changes would rumble on long after the match, and one has to wonder what might happened had Löw retained the 4-2-3-1. Might Germany have steamrollered the Italians, running their ageing defence ragged? Or would the Azzurri have benefited from the additional space on the wings as they had done against Spain?
Some commentators suggested that the team had made their way into the last four in spite of the coach, rather than because of him; Löw, for his part, remained level-headed. His team were through, albeit battered and bruised.
Not much to do during the match, but provided some great moments with his passes up the field – one of which contributed to the goal. Was unable to get close enough to Bonucci’s penalty during the match, put proved himself the master in the shootout. Up against the great Gigi Buffon, this is saying something.
Solid without being spectacular, but then he didn’t have to be. Back in the side after two matches on the bench, the Schalke 04 skipper was more at home in the three-man back line rather than at right back. Did not have to take a penalty, but was surely going to be the next man up if Jonas Hector hadn’t finished the job.
A sterling display in the middle of the defence, the big man didn’t put a foot wrong all evening. When things did go awry, it was courtesy of his flailing arms. When the ball is on the ground Boateng has become the almost undisputed master of his domain, but he remains slightly suspect when the ball is in the air. More than made up for his gaffe with a well-taken penalty in the shootout.
Like Boateng, a masterful display marred only by a yellow card which will keep him out of the semi-final. Apart from that one moment, it was a world class display from the FC Bayern-bound number five. Tucked away his penalty with nonchalant aplomb – even if Buffon did get a slight touch on it.
Kimmich’s charges down the right wing were largely neutralised by his Italian opposite number, but this was another solid outing for the FC Bayern youngster. Performed his defensive duties with distinction, and showed a maturity beyond his years in the shootout with a calm and clinical spot-kick.
After an iffy couple of matches early on, Hector has grown into the role covering the left flank. Did what he had to do defensively, and made the crucial run to provide the assist for the goal. Capped off a memorable evening by netting the winning penalty.
A sad evening for Khedira, who was forced to leave the field after just a quarter of an hour. Was replaced by Bastian Schweinsteiger, and looks doubtful for the semi-final.
The German pass master was his usual self, though given the pattern of the game was less influential than usual. Maintained his passing accuracy but was never really threatening. Did his bit in the shootout, scoring Germany’s first spot-kick.
Had a good opportunity to score in the first half, and again looked badly out of sorts and low in confidence. In spite of this, he never things get to him – if that happens, we can really start worrying. Müller cannot even buy a goal at the moment, and his poor evening ended with a penalty best forgotten.
Showed moments of magic throughout the match, but it was always going to be difficult against a team like Italy. Scored the goal to give Germany the lead and almost created a second with a sublime pass to Mario Gómez. One of the big three who missed from the penalty spot, a dampener on a more than decent performance.
Didn’t find the back of the net, but was influential in the creating the German goal with his energy, strength and excellent thinking. Could easily have wrapped things up himself just moments later, but was brilliantly denied by Buffon. Was forced off injured with fourteen minutes remaining and replaced by Julian Draxler. The following day, Gómez was ruled out of the tournament with a hamstring injury.
Came on for Sami Khedira just fifteen minutes in, and lasted the remaining 105 minutes. Was solid without really setting the world alight, and was noticeably short of pace at times. Had an opportunity to win the penalty shootout, but scooped his kick harmlessly over the bar and into the crowd.
After replacing Mario Gómez at an inopportune moment, the VfL Wolfsburg man was never able to find his rhythm in a system clearly not suited to him. He more than did his bit in the penalty shootout however, with the best of Germany’s six successful strikes.
Neuer (1), Höwedes (2), Boateng (3), Hummels (1), Kimmich (3), Hector (2), Khedira (n/a), Kroos (3), Müller (4), Özil (2), Gómez (2). Substitutes (until 75 minutes): Schweinsteiger (4), Draxler (4)
Neuer (1), Höwedes (2), Boateng (3), Hummels (2), Kimmich (3), Hector (2), Khedira (n/a), Kroos (3), Müller (4), Özil (2), Gómez (2). Substitutes (until 75 minutes): Schweinsteiger (4.5), Draxler (3)
Neuer (1), Höwedes (2), Boateng (2), Hummels (2), Kimmich (2), Hector (2), Khedira (n/a), Kroos (3), Müller (4), Özil (1), Gómez (2). Substitutes (until 75 minutes): Schweinsteiger (4), Draxler (3)