Mario Balotelli
Mario Balotelli silenced his critics with two goals that put Italy to their first European Championship final since 2000. Reuters

Italy stunned Germany with two first-half goals from Mario Balotelli to send the Azzurri through to a European Championship final with Spain on Sunday.

Germany had begun in the ascendancy, but Italy soon came into the match strongly and, in contrast to their quarterfinal with England, this time they had a razor sharp cutting edge. Balotelli, criticized for missing chances against England, was at his confident and lethal best, first dispatching a header from Antonio Cassano's cross and then firing in spectacularly as Germany's defense went to pieces.

Germanylooked to push forward after making changes at the break, but Italy defended stoically and gave as good as they got, carving out several chances on the break. It wasn't until Germany was awarded a penalty in injury time, dispatched by Ozil, that there appeared a real chance that Italy might let their lead slip.

Both sides had made changes to their lineups with Germany bringing Toni Kroos into midfield, while for Italy Ignazio Abate failed to be passed fit, meaning that Federico Balzaretti was forced into an unfamiliar right-back role and Giorgio Chiellini stepped in at left back.

Although both changes could be viewed as defensive-minded, the contest began as it was hoped with both sides far from shy in committing men forward.
Germany came close to profiting early as two uncharacteristically nervous moments from Ginaluigi Buffon almost cost Italy dear.

The Azzurri's long-standing number one first getting caught out from a corner and needing a customarily cool Andrea Pirlo to clear off the line and then minutes later Buffon palmed the ball straight onto Andrea Barzagli and the ball bounced inches wide of his goal.

After a difficult opening 15 minutes in which Germany was making use of their greater width against Italy's midfield diamond, Cesare Prandelli's side started to get a foothold in the match.

Ominously, as it proved for Germany, Italy were beginning to profit from the linkup play between trequartista Riccardo Montolivo and the two forwards ahead of him.

Neat play involving Cassano, Balotelli and Montolivo led to a decent shot from 20 yards from the latter, but it lacked the power to seriously threaten Manuel Neuer. Germany's number one was forced into action again just seconds later as Cassano gave him more of a test with a curling long-range effort.

Germany had been warned and Italy struck decisively after 20 minutes.

There was no surprise that Pirlo started it all with a fine ball out to Chiellini, who then shifted it on to Cassano down the left flank. The Milan forward beat two defenders, turning far too easily past Mats Hummels and putting in an inviting cross for Balotelli who took advantage of Badstuber's ball watching to meet the ball with a firm header past Neuer.

On a world record winning run stretching back 15 competitive games, Germany was behind for the first time in 14 of those matches. And they did not react well. The mental fortitude seen as such a trademark of German teams of the past was sorely missing as the current side lost all tactical discipline to devastating effect.

Seeing the wide open space ahead of him, Montolivo put the ball over the top and crudely exposed their opponents' lack of defensive organization and captain Philipp Lahm in particular who couldn't recover as Balotelli ran clear and smashed the ball into the top corner form the edge of the area. Germany's defending was all over the place, but that should not detract from a finish of the highest quality from the maverick striker.

In a tremendously open encounter Germany still had two opportunities in between Italy's strikes as Khedira and Ozil forced saves from a now far-more assured Buffon.

Germany began the second period well with substitute Marco Reus almost making an immediate impact as he turned inside Leonardo Bonucci, but scuffed his shot at the near post.

Lahm also came close to pulling a goal back, the full-back bursting inside as he did for his goal against Greece, but this time he got his shot all wrong as it sailed over the bar.
Italy's defense was having to work at full capacity; moments later Bonucci made a textbook sliding challenge to take the ball off the toes of another half-time substitute, Miroslav Klose.

Already a hero, Balotelli almost cemented his place in Italian folklore as he struck a threatening shot that just drifted wide of the far post. It would be Balotelli's last opportunity for a hat-trick before being taken off 20 minutes from the end.

But much of the action was now at the other end. Reus continued to justify his arrival with a free-kick in ideal territory that was dipping just under the bar, but was hit too central, allowing Buffon to get across and make the save.

Sensing the danger, Italy coach Cesare Prandelli responded with two defensive-minded changes in the opening 20 minutes of the second period. Alessandro Diamanti and Thiago Motta replacing the impressive duo of Antonio Cassano and Riccardo Montolivo. Yet, in-keeping with their style under Prandelli, Italy were far from merely sitting back. Claudio Marchisio had two fine chances, but on both occasions dragged his shot wide across goal.

Germany were trying everything to make a comeback, as Thomas Muller was brought on for Jerome Boateng. Yet Italy was defending admirably and if anything it was they who looked more likely to score, as they maintained a threat on the break.

Antonio Di Natale, on for Balotelli, had the best of the late chances, bursting clear through on goal but lashing his shot into the side netting at the near post.

Whenever Germany did appear that they might get though to Buffon, there was a desperate Italian challenge preventing a shot on goal, such as Balzaretti's on Reus followed by a fine block from Bonucci to deny Hummels the clock ticked into its final minute.

It would take a penalty for Germany to pierce the resolute Italian rearguard. The ball bounced up and struck Balzaretti on the arm and Ozil calmly stepped up and dispatched the ball to Buffon's left. It produced some late drama, but Italy, despite the efforts of Neuer pushing forward, were able to hold on.

They may have been more spectacular in the first period, but their second-half performance was equally impressive as they rarely looked in danger, until the very end,of allowing Germany back in. For the tournament's joint favorites much attention will focus on coach Joachim Low's to change up their midfield and their ultimate inability to exploit the greater strength Germany should have had attacking down the flanks. Perhaps there was a psychological barrier too, as Germany's run of never having beaten Italy in a competitive match now extends to eight games..

Mario Balotelli Two Goal Highlights vs Germany...

by kofiswag