Only Germany could win the worst penalty shootout in their history. Prior to Saturday night, the Germans had only failed to score with two of their 28 attempts in major tournaments. They surpassed that total in the space of five comical minutes against Italy, and yet it is they who progress to the semi-final. Chelsea finally get their manager.
Before now, Italy have a held a curse over Germany stretching back almost 45 years. Eight times Germany had faced Italy in competitive matches, eight times the Azzurri has avoided defeat: 1962, 1970, 1978, 1982, 1988, 1996, 2006, 2012. Italy may well have technically avoided defeat in 2016, but it is the Germans who will dance long into the Bordeaux night. They are Die Penaltymeisters.
For much of the night this felt like a final, where fear almost always outweighs ambition. Neither Germany nor Italy were adventurous enough to risk conceding the first goal, aware of the probable consequence. This was football as if through high-level political negotiations, both teams making their case but afraid to impose themselves too readily on the other.
Like a footballing version of Godwin’s Law, the phrase I’m inevitably heading towards is ‘intriguing tactical battle’. That cliche is typically saved for a match between two excellent sides who cancel each other. Look it up in the ITV pundit dictionary of tired epithets and you will find the first half played on loop. From 20 minutes in, penalties felt like an inevitability.
In choosing to match up against Italy’s own back three, Joachim Loew was paying Antonio Conte’s Italy a huge compliment. Loew changed a shape that had not conceded a single goal in their first four tournament matches, and dropped Man of the Match against Slovakia Julian Draxler for an extra central defender.
The mirrored formations led to some unusual eventualities. Manuel Neuer, used to making short passes from every goal kick, was forced to kick it long with Italy leaving three or four attacking players forward to cut off his options.
With both sides putting pressure on the ball as soon as it reached halfway, centre-backs Leonardo Bonucci and Jerome Boateng effectively became the deepest of deep-lying playmakers, launching the ball long to Graziano Pelle and Mario Gomez respectively. That followed a series of sideways passes that caused the viewer to understandably worry about a stalemate.
The second half brought goals apiece, the first achieved through the brilliance of Gomez’s vision and pass and the second through the stupidity of Jerome Boateng when handling the ball. Mesut Ozil and Bonucci were the gleeful recipients, but from the moment Italy’s captain levelled the game we were only headed one way.
When penalties finally came, they were gloriously shambolic. There is an odd separation between our vision of the perfect 90-minute match and the ideal penalty shootout. In the former we demand spectacular skill, but in the latter we demand farce and incompetence. That was provided by Simone Zaza, Graziano Pelle and various others guilty of missing the target. Zaza’s run up will be the source of a million Vines, all taking the p*ss just the right amount.
Pelle telling Neuer that he would chip his penalty down the middle before dragging it wide provided a very different kind of warm, tingly feeling. There is nothing more entertaining than talented people failing spectacularly under pressure. Add in an element of demonstrative pride before a fall, and we’re standing to applaud.
Antonio Conte and Italy may be heading home, but the coach has only enhanced his reputation by dragging a seemingly mediocre squad of players beyond expectation. Loew has greater expectations. Italy were the team predicted to be victorious by almost every pundit before the game, but it is Germany who march on again.
Two games now separate Loew from becoming only the third coach to win both the World Cup and European Championship. A place in German folklore awaits; even if the penalties do need improvement.