There were surprises for Germany, with Toni Kroos seeing his first action of the tournament as Joachim Low looked to give Bastian Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira help against Andrea Pirlo and Italy's narrow midfield. Meanwhile for Italy there were question marks, with Daniele De Rossi and Giorgio Chiellini able to start despite carrying minor knocks and Ignazio Abate consigned to the bench by his. And, of course, there were questions about Mario Balotelli. Because there will always be questions about Mario Balotelli.
Germany 1 Ozil 90+2'
Italy 2 Balotelli 20', 36'
Germany started brightly, their pace and technique seeming too much for a game Italian side to fully cope with, and in the opening minutes a rout for the favourites didn't seem an unlikely outcome. Their first seemed inevitable when Gialuigi Buffon hesitated on a German corner and the ball fell to Mats Hummels on the edge of the six-yard box. Andrea Pirlo, though, was guarding the post, and Italy's player of the tournament saved the underdogs from going down inside five minutes and kept Germany from setting a very different tone for the match than the one that would instead develop.
With Italy trying to play football despite Germany's ascendency, more chances followed, and twelve minutes in Buffon again misjudged the flight of the ball when Boateng sent a low cross towards goal. The Italian keeper got his hands to it, but he could only push the ball straight out towards the penalty spot. A ricochet off an Italian defender could have landed anywhere but fortunately for Buffon anywhere was on this occasion wide of his goal, once again sparing him the embarrassment of putting his side down early.
Rather than reverting to a more defensive posture as they might have in years past, the Italians kept plugging away, and soon they began to find chances of their own. It all conspired to give neutral fans the most open, competitive start to a match since the group stages ended. Then, twenty minutes in, the underdogs struck. Pirlo, growing into another strong performance, switched the play to the left and the ball ended up at the feet of Antonio Cassano. The striker wriggled his way past two defenders and lofted a ball towards Balotelli, who climbed above Holger Badstuber and sent a firm header past Manuel Neuer.
While it marked the start of another fantastic game for Pirlo and a top day for the good Mario Balotelli, it signalled the beginning of a nightmare for Germany's defence. Badstuber in particular had a poor showing at the back, repeatedly shown up for power and pace by the on-form Balotelli, and Mats Hummels looked a far cry from being one of the top defenders in world football as he is so often billed. There was plenty of blame to go around, though, and when the second Italian goal came, much of it would fall to Philipp Lahm, caught napping as Italy countered off a German corner. The defender belatedly stepped up to play Balotelli offside, and so when the Italian striker took down the ball onside there was nobody between him and Manuel Neuer. Balotelli made no mistake, hammering a strike into the roof for his second goal of the night.
Beyond serious problems in defence for Germany, as the first half wore on it became increasingly clear that returning Marco Reus to the bench in favour of Lucas Podolski when the former had looked good against Greece and the latter had spent the group stage hindering the fluidity of their attack had been a mistake. Joachim Low took the chance to correct his error at the break, swapping Reus for the still struggling Podolski and also bringing on the speedy Miroslav Klose for Mario Gomez at striker.
The change was almost instant, and within three minutes Reus had Germany's best chance since Buffon's early nervy moments had nearly gifted them a pair of goals, cutting in from the right and firing a low effort at the Italian keeper that was well saved. Soon afterwards, Reus was again the catalyst in a move that ended with Lahm firing over from fifteen yards out as the Germans focused on attacking down Italy's left, where the injured Chiellini and De Rossi appeared increasingly vulnerable.
It wasn't a pace the Germans could sustain, however, and when a goal didn't come their play inevitably began to slow, allowing a stretched Italian defence to re-organise. As the match approached the three-quarter mark, the strain of keeping up with the Germans after having gone to penalties on Sunday against England began to show for the Italians, and when a cramping Mario Balotelli had to be removed in the 68th minute there seemed reason to think the Germans might once again begin to assert themselves on the match.
That German pressure didn't come. With their hopes seeming dashed and their heads beginning to drop, the best chances all fell to Italy for the remainder of regulation time. Germany finally did find something of their earlier determination—and along with it a faint lifeline—92 minutes in, when Ozil converted from the spot after an Italian handball, but that was as close as they would get, and with Neuer racing up the pitch for a German spot kick just past the 94 minute mark the referee blew his whistle and time ran out on a late and unlikely comeback attempt.
Though they looked good in the opening minutes, the final scoreline is one that flatters the Germans. It also speaks to Italy's continuing troubles converting their chances into goals. In the end, though, the better team finds itself on the winning side tonight, and in so doing sets up a rematch of the Group C opener between Italy and Spain. And after today, there can be little doubt that Sunday's final is anything but a rematch for the two best sides at Euro 2012.