With the complacent standard of punditry we have all become accustomed to from him, ahead of England’s quarter-final against Italy, Alan Hansen said Mario Balotelli hadn’t achieved anything in the game yet. At the age of 21 he has actually already been a member of four league title winning squads in addition to being being part of squads that have won the Champions League, the FA Cup, and the Coppa Italia. And in the first forty-five minutes of the semi-final against Germany on Thursday he did more on an International stage than Hansen did in a lifetime.
For the first time in memory Hansen’s comments at half-time may have been anticipated by many but, as his good luck would have it, instead of being forced to eat his words on air the BBC actually got in a couple of more interesting and intelligent analysts instead, with cameo appearances from Jurgen Klinsmann and Gianluca Vialli.
Even better analysis on terrestrial television came later in the highlights programme on ITV, showing how Germany failed to spread the play against a congested central midfield. The passing and moving that looked so good previously for the favourites wasn’t as sharp on Thursday night, with the Germans looking like they had had two less days rest after a draining 120 minutes quarter-final victory, rather than the other way round.
As well as Balotelli’s two excellent finishes, which both highlighted his intelligent movement, Cassano dropping-off into pockets also caused Germany problems, with both Italian full-backs advanced to give them width as they dominated the centre. As the game went into to the death and the Italians looking more likely to get a third on the break than Germany were to pull one back, the attacking Thomas Muller replaced right-back Jerome Boateng, which resulted in Germany losing their width on the right and being frustrated further.
Italy got the little things right, Germany weren’t at their best and Balotelli’s firepower was the difference. It may be the key in the final as well. Portugal pressed well against Spain in the first-half of their semi-final but didn’t score when on top and wasted their opportunities when they came on the break in the second-half, as they tired.
Portugal’s higher tempo game put pressure on the Spanish team, and even when they started dominating excellent individual defensive performances from Portuguese restricted Spain. Pirlo is likely to have a lot less space against a brilliant Spanish midfield as he did against England and Germany, but if the Italians were to take the lead Spain may find it harder to break them down.
If Spain score first they will do well not to drop off, as they did in the group game when they then relied on a substitute forward, Torres, to stretch Italy, but conceded territory to easily. Italy have shown given time and space they can work the ball well. With a packed Spanish midfield they may not get it, and both sets of full-backs could be vital.
The Substantive Football Columnist Mel Gomes’ new e-book ‘Glory Nights: From Wankdorf to Wembley’ is now available to preview and download from Amazon and Smashwords. With past recollections of matches including Clasicos, Milan Derbies and Diego Maradona’s one appearance at White Hart Lane, it covers a journey over land and sea in the 2010-11 Champions League. New, independent writing on popular culture, it is being backed by The Substantive.