Poise and control of midfield maestro a lesson for Germans
IN the end, the centre held for Italy. It all caved in for Germany. The poise and control of Cesare Prandelli's team bested the energy and adventure of Joachim Löw's.
In that, this was a true contest of opposites. Prior to last night, Germany had enjoyed the most prolific frontline in the tournament but one of the most open defences. Italy, meanwhile, have had the best backline after Spain but have been oddly profligate in attack. Last night something had to give.
To a degree, such differences have been down to their altering styles. Italy have famously adopted the more poised Barcelona possession game, while Germany's entire system, infrastructure and training sessions are based on the idea of scoring goals at breakneck speed within eight seconds of getting the ball.
These differences were also most pronounced in the one area of the pitch where the two teams came together: the abrasiveness of Bastian Schweinsteiger against the velvet control of Andrea Pirlo. Mario Balotelli apart, it was the contrast that decided the game.
The two totems of their respective teams first clashed in the eighth minute in a moment that pretty much summed each one of them up. First, Daniele De Rossi took advantage of Schweinsteiger's energy to deceive him with a backheel.
It was, to steal a famous phrase, like a fire engine going to the wrong fire. To Schweinsteiger's credit, though, he immediately got up and got back to the right one. As Pirlo lined up a shot, the German No 7 got across to bravely block it.
In truth, it was a rare occasion in which the Italian was so far forward. As Löw predicted before the game, he mostly dropped back much deeper to give himself the panoramic view from which he could see so many of those passes.
But, if Löw predicted it, the wonder is why he didn't do anything about it. On 19 minutes, Pirlo appeared to get caught up in midfield only to regain control once again.
It proved a launchpad. From there, the ball was eventually played out to Antonio Cassano. He took advantage of the gaps in the German defensive system to cross for the brilliant Balotelli to beat his marker and powerfully head in the opener.
The second goal was the same story in a different way. With Germany overcommitted, there were again too many empty spaces. Italy -- and particularly Balotelli -- filled them.
That is the cost of the overwhelming German energy which Schweinsteiger so typifies. It creates such a rush, they don't seem to know when to stop.
You could never say the same about Pirlo.
Of course, the very positions both teams found themselves in signalled another advantage of Italy's possession football. As Spain have repeatedly illustrated over the last four years as well as the last four weeks, once such sides go ahead it is very, very difficult to draw them back.
The Italians could keep the ball without being under any pressure to risk losing it by attacking. And, out of that, they still produced some of the best moves.
With Germany precisely trying to push up on Pirlo, that created more space for the other midfielders to pick balls for Balotelli.
All of this resulted in Germany going out at the semi-final stage for the second tournament in a row.
The big question that now has to be asked is whether they are a "nearly team"? Certainly, they are not complete.
They could do with learning when to press the pause button.
They could do with learning to be cleverer in possession.
In short, they could do with looking at Pirlo.
The 33-year-old Juventus player, meanwhile, is only looking to the final.