How Germany cast aside Azzurri albatross with shootout win

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BORDEAUX, France — After losing on penalties to Germany at the 1990 World Cup, Enlgand striker Gary Lineker said, “Football is a simple game. Twenty-two men chase a ball and at the end, the Germans always win.”

And so it was again in Bordeaux. After 120 minutes of football that will be remembered more for strategy than spectacle, one of the most dramatic penalty shootouts in recent history was decided by the powerful palm of Manuel Neuer. In pushing away Matteo Darmian’s penalty, Neuer paved the way for new Bayern Munich team-mate Mats Hummels to slot home and set up a Euro 2016 semi-final date with either France or Iceland.

It was Germany’s sixth shootout triumph in a row, and not since the audacious chip of Antonin Panenka in the 1976 European Championship have they tasted defeat on penalties. Whether it’s been down to superior psychological strength or superior technique, it has quite simply been forty years of German spot-kick superiority.

As one run continued, Germany celebrated another ending; at the ninth attempt, they finally recorded a maiden victory over Italy in a competitive fixture, casting aside the Azzurri albatross that has hung around German necks since their first meeting at the 1962 World Cup in Chile.

On the balance of play over 120 minutes – for there was little balance in what was a topsy-turvy shootout – Germany were deserving of their progress to the semis. They outperformed their opponents, though Italy must once again be commended for showing the sort of dogged resistance and spirit that has come to characterise Antonio Conte’s Azzurri.

When the two nations met in the Euro 2012 semi-finals, it was a show stopping salvo from Mario Balotelli that gave Italy victory. After a much cagier affair in Bordeaux, it was Joachim Low who took the plaudits. In his tactical tête-à-tête with Conte, it was Lowe that emerged triumphant.

The Germany coach sprung a surprise with his line-up, opting for a 3-5-2 that saw Julian Draxler sacrificed despite a superb showing against Slovakia in the last-16. Mirroring Conte’s favoured formation certainly proved a smart plan, the Italians stifled and left struggling for ideas throughout as Germany dominated possession and looked far more adventurous in attack.

“I know there has been a lot of talk about the formation but it was necessary,” Low explained in his post-match press conference. “After the Italy Spain game it was my first thought. This was a game on a very high tactical level from both sides. I think we were superior on the pitch and the Italians, whose strengths consist of playing very well in the centre – we did very well not to let them do that.”

Low utilised Jonas Hector and Josh Kimmich as wing-backs, with Mats Hummels and Jerome Boateng alongside Benedikt Howedes in a back three. The centre-backs exhibited an impressive variety of pinpoint long passing throughout, Hummels almost adding an assist to his name after floating a ball forward for Bastian Schweinsteiger reminiscent of Leonardo Bonucci’s for Emanuele Giaccherini in Italy’s opening win over Belgium. Like Giaccherini, Schweinsteiger found the back of the net, but the Germany captain was adjudged to have pushed Mattia De Sciglio.

Germany’s opening goal was certainly a triumph for Low’s system, created as it was by left wing-back Hector. He raced on to Mario Gomez’s smart reverse pass before finding Mesut Ozil, who showed more poise slotting home from eight yards than he managed from 12 later on.

On the right-hand side, Kimmich was a little less convincing – the threat of his marauding runs forward tempered by a couple of moments when he risked exposing Germany to onrushing opposite number De Sciglio. He did, however, show some impressive defensive resolve in extra-time, with both Kimmich and Hector both singled out for praise by Low after scoring in the shootout.

It is intriguing to watch the two coaches at work. They cut contrasting figures in the technical area, Low always looking relaxed with his snug jumper and hands in pockets, while Conte gesticulates wildly in his chic suit, kicking every ball and enthusiastically inculcating.

Chelsea fans should be enthused by Conte, and not just because his suave dress sense will not look out of place on the King’s Road. Conte has shown at Euro 2016 what those at Juventus already knew well – he is simultaneously a superb tactician and skilled motivator. The Italy coach was humble in defeat, recognising that Low’s decision to overhaul Germany’s formation was a compliment to his side.

“I think Germany had huge respect for Italy,” Conte said after the match. “The fact that the world champions changed their formation to play us shows that they at least had significant respect for us. It was a tough match from every perspective.

“It’s a shame to go out in this fashion because it was the lottery of the penalty shootout and we were also leading before the first penalty. However, a top side goes through. I think they are the best side in the world at this moment in time from every angle.

“The fact we were able to match them should be a slight achievement from us from a certain perspective but we believed we could do it and ultimately the disappointment was huge in the dressing room come the end of the game. We really believed in this dream and we scrapped, we really tried to cling on to this dream as best we could.”

For now that dream is over, while old adversaries Germany take another step towards emulating Spain by completing a World Cup and European Championship double. Banners at the German end of the Stade Bordeaux celebrated the trio of continental triumphs of 1972, 1980 and 1996; given the talent at Low’s disposal and his aptitude for tactical adaptability, the addition of a fourth is looking increasingly probable.

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