The curse continues.
Italy has never lost in a competitive game against Germany, and they kept that streak alive Thursday with their comprehensive 2-1 upset of the favored Germans in the semifinals of UEFA Euro 2012.
Coming into the game with two fewer days of rest than the Germans off of a game that went to penalties, Italy played a fantastic defensive match and nullified the Germans until the very end of the game when a fluke handball in the box made for a nervy finish in the last two minutes of stoppage time.
So who had the most fingerprints on Thursday's upset win? One by one we go...
Hear him roar.
Gigi Buffon started Thursday's game with some uncharacteristic mistakes. In the fifth minute he hesitated on an early German corner, caught in two minds as to whether to come out to claim the ball. It fell to German defender Mats Hummels, who hit a tame volley that Andrea Pirlo was able to chest down at the line for Buffon to pounce on.
Seven minutes later he punched a cross by Jerome Boateng away rather than gathering it, hitting the ball off Andrea Barzagli's shins and narrowly missing an own goal.
From that point on he was his old self. Right after the wayward punch he did well to save a shot from Tony Kroos, In the 35th minute, Sami Khedira put a vicious long-range volley on goal that forced Buffon to make an excellent save.
In the 62nd minute, substitute Marco Reus blasted a free kick from the edge of the box on target but Buffon nicked the ball from just under the crossbar and sent it over. He was then tasked with gathering the crosses that the Germans peppered into the box as they desperately tried to pull back.
Then, as the game lapsed into stoppage time, Federico Balzaretti handled the ball in the box to give the Germans a penalty. Buffon faced down Mesut Ozil, who went to the keeper's left with a shot that Buffon guessed correctly on but was too powerful for him to reach before it went past him.
It was unsettling to see the early mistakes, but Buffon made a fantastic recovery from the early errors to keep Italy's lead safe and set up another showdown with Iker Casillas in the battle for the title of world's best goalkeeper.
The photo on this slide is very likely Balzaretti's signature moment of the tournament.
Forced to play out of position at right back due to the suspension of Christian Maggio and an injury to Ignazio Abate, the Palermo man put in a fantastic performance. He made numerous key defensive plays, such as in the 34th minute when he cleared a cross from Boateng over the line for a corner.
His biggest contribution of the night, however, came in the 86th minute.
Looking for the goal that would put his team back in the match, Tony Kroos slipped through the Italian defense and received a good ball, seemingly leaving him one-on-one with Buffon. That was when Balzaretti came out of nowhere with a sliding tackle to dispossess the German and put the ball out for a corner.
He had his moments going forward as well, particularly in the 83rd minute, when he seemingly put the game away with a third goal but had just stepped offside before receiving the pass.
His grade would have been a full A had it not been for his handball inside the box in the second minute of stoppage time, giving the Germans a penalty and setting up two nervy minutes to finish the game.
Barzagli played an absolutely mistake-free match Thursday. He was a rock in the back, cutting out crosses and winning balls in the air. He absolutely nullified German striker Mario Gomez, who had come into the match as the tournaments joint-top scorer.
An example of his great game was in the 73rd minute. Tracking back as the Germans looked to play a ball over the top, Barzagli made a great header away from the goal while moving in the opposite direction to cover his man. He also made an important clearance on a long throw in the third minute of stoppage time as the Germans tried to use the narrow window after their goal to equalize the match.
Prandelli's decision to keep Barzagli in the lineup despite the injury he suffered against Russia has proved to be inspired. Since coming on in the final group match against Croatia, he has turned the Italian back line into a fortress. He will be as important as ever in the final against the Spaniards.
Bonucci had a rocky start to the match but recovered in time to make some important plays on defense down the stretch.
In the 15th minute Bonucci made an attempt to clear the ball but rocketed it off of a teammate's back. Fortunately, the deflection was so hard that it made it all the way back to Buffon. In the 27th minute, a miscommunication between he and Barzagli let a ball go free to Mesut Ozil, whose subsequent shot from range was easy for Buffon to save.
Things got better starting around the 44th minute, when he cut out a good through ball. Twelve minutes later he made a fantastically timed sliding challenge on German sub Miroslav Klose in the Italian box, dispossessing the legendary striker for a corner when he could have gone through on goal.
The improvement was stunted a bit by a booking on a pretty unnecessary lunge in the 61st minute. The foul allowed the Germans a dangerous free kick that they very nearly converted into a goal that would have made the game far more interesting.
There hasn't been much for Giorgio Chiellini to smile about in this tournament. He made critical mistakes that led to equalizing goals in the first two matches of the group stage, then was forced off the field in the group finale against Ireland with a recurrence of a thigh injury that he suffered in the Serie A finale against Atalanta.
Dating back to the 2010 World Cup, Chiellini had been having an absolutely miserable run for the national team the last four times he saw the field. However, he made a miracle recovery from the injury and played an understated but important role in booking Italy's ticket to the final.
Shifting from center-back to left in Prandelli's four-man defense to allow Balzaretti to play emergency right-back, Chiellini thrived in the position he played when he broke into the professional game.
Unlike Balzaretti or Bonucci, you can't really point to one "wow" moment for Chiellini in this matchup. He just neutralized the German attack up the Italian left. Boateng was sometimes given space, but with one exception his crosses never really threatened.
He wasn't seen going up the field all that often—presumably to protect his injury from too much running—which could have been a problem for Prandelli, who relies on his full-backs to provide width in the attack, but Italy ended up being able to control things without him marauding up the wings. Despite this, you can credit him with a "hockey assist" on Italy's first goal. His feed to Antonio Cassano on one of his few forays forward led to the AC Milan man's cross to Mario Balotelli for the breakthrough.
It was a vindicating performance for the three-time Serie A Defender of the Year, who now may be asked to play on the left of a three-man line should Prandelli move back to the 3-5-2 that allowed the Azzurri to outplay the Spaniards in their group opener.
It wasn't the utter domination that Pirlo displayed against England, but Andrea Pirlo was once again an integral part of the Italian machine.
Pirlo didn't do as much out-and-out creating Thursday. His role was more to push the ball up the field to the strikers and let them find the holes in Germany's defense, something that he was able to do quite well. The Germans seemed to adjust their tactics to press him and reduce the room he had to operate, which may well have allowed the rest of the team to unzip their back line.
One can make the strong argument that Pirlo's biggest impact Thursday was not on the attack but on defense. Stationed on the line on a 5th minute German corner kick, Pirlo blocked a shot from Mats Hummels after Buffon was caught in two minds about what to do with the ball and let it get to the German defender, allowing Buffon to get back on top of the ball. Had the ball gotten past him and into the goal, winning the match would have been a vastly different proposition.
The count on number of goals that Marchisio should have in this tournament is now up to four.
In the 75th minute the Juventus man led a break that looked promising to give the Italians an insurmountable three-goal edge. With the option of shooting or slotting the ball to teammate Antonio Di Natale, Marchisio elected the former. It wasn't the worst decision, but the shot swerved wide of the far post too fast for Di Natale to be able to get a touch on it to redirect.
Seven minutes earlier he had been fed by Alessandro Diamanti with a through ball that whistled just wide of the right-hand post.
Despite his inability to take his golden chance, Marchisio gets a high grade in this game for something that he's not necessarily known for—defense. Three times it was Marchisio who met German corner kicks to clear the ball out of the Italian box, and he helped to hound the German midfield into mistake after mistake.
After his breakout season with the bianconeri, Marchisio has had the chances to cement a place amongst some of the best midfielders in Europe—if not the world—in this tournament, but he hasn't been able to seize them. He'll be needed to have a quality performance against Spain's metronomic midfielders if the Azzurri are to have a chance to take the trophy home.
An 84th minute booking marred what was otherwise a fantastic performance Thursday from Daniele De Rossi.
Somewhat questionable for the match after being forced off in the quarterfinal against England with an injury, the midfield enforcer was fantastic defensively Thursday, helping keep the high-powered German attack down for almost the entire game.
He made an impact early, running half the width of the field in the sixth minute to cover Sami Khedira, who had received the ball with the entire left side of the Italian defense gaping open before him. Il capitano futuro ran him down and got the ball behind for a corner.
He really made his mark in the 41st minute, upending Khedira with a thunderclap of a challenge outside of the Italian box that ended a German attack.
In the 79th minute he made a foray forward and his cross just missed Di Natale in the box as the Italians pressed forward for a third to put the match out of reach.
After a bad start to his tournament, Riccardo Montolivo finally showed some flashes of the player AC Milan is counting on to revitalize their midfield next season.
He started the positive motions in the fourth minute, when he gained a loose ball that had been deflected by Mario Balotelli. He tried to feed Balotelli with a through ball back to him but it was just too far ahead of the striker.
In the 17th minute, Cassano fed him with a back pass and he forced Manuel Neuer to make a good save on a low shot. Less successful was his effort in the 34th minute, when Cassano got him the ball all alone in the box. The former Fiorentina captain held the ball far too long and the German defense was able to collapse on him.
Two minutes later, however, he provided Balotelli with what would turn out to be the decisive goal. Gathering a German corner that Buffon had punched out, Montolivo spotted the Manchester City striker sitting onside in a seam between the German central defenders. He launched a long ball that Balotelli collected with ease and rocketed into the top corner of the net.
Montolivo was brought off in the 63rd minute, as Prandelli changed his personnel to protect his two-goal lead and put on the more physical Thiago Motta to nail things down.
Super Mario finally came to play in full force Thursday.
After a so-so performance in the quarters, Balotelli sliced through the German defense in this match, consistently putting himself in dangerous positions and scoring a brace that just oozed class.
The first goal came courtesy of strike partner Antonio Cassano, who took a feed from Giorgio Chiellini and beat Mats Hummels to send in a cross. Balotelli leaped over Holger Badstuber and thumped his header past Manuel Neuer, who was moving to his left to follow the cross and was unable to change direction in time.
The second came from the express lane, assisted by Montolivo, who launched a long pass that found Balotelli onside in between the German defenders. Philip Lahm tried to get across to disrupt him, but Balotelli fired an absolute rocket from 18 yards into the top-right corner, leaving Neuer no chance to make a play.
It was unfortunate, though, that Balotelli decided to celebrate that second goal by whipping off his jersey and posing. While the pose was indeed intimidating (those muscles would make Chuck Norris feel inadequate), the automatic booking that came with the removal of his shirt caused some nervy moments as the game wore on as the Italian fans prayed he didn't pick up a second yellow and a suspension for the final. He didn't do anything that would remotely merit such a decision from French referee Stephane Lannoy. He even came back on defense a few times, mopping up a loose ball in the 38th minute.
He nearly picked up a hat trick on the hour, but his shot from the right inside the box curled outside of Neuer's post.
It was somewhat concerning that he cramped up so early in the game—he hit the deck in the 69th minute and was immediately replaced with Antonio Di Natale. One way or the other, he figures to be prominent figure in the final against Spain, where he'll need to replicate this performance—not the indifferent performance of the group stage opener between the two teams—for his team to have a chance.
After a difficult performance against England, Cassano was back to his stellar form in Thursday's game.
With the Germans focusing on stopping Pirlo, Cassano became the main creator, and he took the role with aplomb, consistently feeding teammates in dangerous positions.
Apart from the stellar assist he notched on Balotelli's opener, he took a curling 18th minute shot from range that was saved well by Neuer. The rest of the match consisted of him slipping through balls into the box for teammates or knocking crosses into the box for Balotelli and the rest of his teammates to try and put the ball into the back of the net.
He came off, as usual since his heart surgery, before the 90 minutes were up, but quite a bit earlier than normal, leaving the field in the 57th minute. My guess is that he was removed as a preservative measure by Prandelli to rest him for Sunday's final.
After scoring the winning penalty against England, the Bologna man came on for Antonio Cassano for the third straight game, this time in the 57th minute. He was able to keep the Italians on the offensive against what is looking like an increasingly weak German back line.
In the 66th minute, he had the ball near the halfway line when he noticed Neuer off his line. He attempted a ridiculous long shot that would have been one of the greatest goals in the history of the Euros had he scored, but the ball drifted and Neuer was able to make a fairly easy save.
His feed to Marchisio a minute later nearly resulted in a goal for the Azzurri to put the match away. Then, in the 78th minute, he broke free with Antonio Di Natale alongside him. Moving the ball to the right side of the German box, he was loading up to deliver the ball— whether he was planning on shooting or passing to the Udinese striker will be known only to the soccer gods—as he slipped on the field and couldn't complete the play. It didn't seem to be his fault, as players on both sides were slipping on the turf, and Di Natale slipped on the exact same spot three minutes later.
It wasn't the imposing performance we saw against England, but it was still an effective outing. Diamanti may have permanently assured himself a place in Prandelli's team for the foreseeable future.
Brought on for Montolivo in the 63rd minute, the physical midfielder was tasked with helping the Azzurri keep their two-goal lead. He made a good tackle on the left defensive wing in the 78th minute to stall out a German attack, and generally was able to impose himself to limit the threats the Germans were able to mount.
He was booked in the 89th minute for a rough tackle that stopped the Germans from breaking out on the counterattack, but the card didn't have much of an impact on his match as a whole.
It will be interesting to see if it is Montolivo or Motta who gets the call against Spain. Motta is the more physical player and would be able to punish the Spanish midfielders more as they tried to develop a rhythm. On the other hand, the last time Montolivo played against Spain—in their August friendly last year—he scored.
Coming on in the 70th minute for a cramping Balotelli, Di Natale was involved in several promising breaks on the counterattack that just petered out at the end. Most notably, however, was an 82nd minute play when he was able to break into a one-on-one situation with Neuer but was unable to even put the ball on target, blasting it into the side netting.
The Azzurri should have had at least four goals by the end of the 90 minutes, and Di Natale's miss—uncharacteristic after his fantastic goal in a similar situation against a superior keeper in Iker Casillas—is emblematic of a problem that has dogged the Italian team for the better part of a year: the inability of the strikers to take their chances. Fortunately, Balotelli was able to seal the deal on the two gilt-edged chances he was given, but if Italy is going to beat Spain, they will have to take every chance they get and make the most of it.