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Germany returns to familiar Euro semifinal stage in unfamiliar fashion

Germany overcame Italy on a major stage and some horribly taken PKs to reach another tournament semifinal.

BORDEAUX, France – Germany made harder work of it than it has of any penalty shootout in 40 years, but when Jonas Hector converted the 18th kick, it was through to its sixth straight major tournament semifinal, having ousted Italy 6-5 on PKs after a 1-1 draw in their Euro 2016 quarterfinal.

Having scored its last 21 penalties in shootouts, Germany missed three here, more than in the rest of its history on a major stage (26-for-28 entering Saturday), but it didn’t matter. Simone Zaza and Graziano Pelle both missed the target, and Manuel Neuer saved from Leonardo Bonucci and Matteo Darmian to ensure that, for the first time in five tries, Germany got the better of Italy in a tournament game.

This was a victory set up by Mesut Ozil’s 65th-minute opener and undermined by a moment of madness from Jerome Boateng to concede a wholly needless penalty 12 minutes later, but it was won by a risk-averse approach.

It’s impossible to hail Germany manager Jogi Low as a genius given how close his side came to defeat–just as it would have been impossible to blame him if Germany had lost–but his tactical changes had a clear affect on the dynamic of the game.

Despite the comprehensive nature of its victory over Slovakia, and the impressive performances of Joshua Kimmich at right back in its last two games, Germany switched to a back three, matching Italy shape for shape. Although Germany experimented with a back three in pre-tournament friendlies–including in the 4-1 win over Italy in March–that seemed an attempt to find a solution to the problem at right back, which has been an issue since Philipp Lahm retired after the World Cup.

This switch seemed, at the very least, a mark of the aura Antonio Conte’s side now projects–some achievement for a team even its own coach admits lacks the quality of previous Italy sides.

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Italy itself was far more cautious than it had been against Spain, when it had torn into an unexpecting opponent from the opening kick. The wingbacks sat deeper so there was often a line of five defenders across the pitch, and the result was a game in which there was very little space for anybody, one littered with poor touches and fouls in which there were not only very few chances but very few chances of creating chances.

Italy was troubled by the German press, lacking the quality to confidently pass through or around it, while Germany, as so often under Low, looked like a side that, having adopted a defensive setting, lost all fluency in the final third.

Bastian Schweinsteiger on as a 16th-minute substitute for the injured Sami Khedira–once gain an injury-victim on a big occasion–did head in a Mats Hummels cross after 27 minutes, but he had palpably fouled Mattia De Sciglio as the ball came over. Not until the 42nd minute was there a shot on target, a loose ball dropping to Thomas Muller in the box 12 yards out. The Bayern Munich forward has–mystifyingly, given his excellent record in World Cups–never scored in a European Championship and here he scuffed his finish straight at Gianluigi Buffon.

Italy’s first proper chance came within seconds, a ball over the top beating the press and releasing Emanuele Giaccherini. Neuer got a touch on his cross to take it behind Graziano Pelle, and the follow-up from Stefano Sturaro was deflected wide of Jerome Boateng.

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But however staid the game, however much Italy frustrated Germany, the sense was always that it was Germany that posed the greater threat. For a long time, its policy of self-denial seemed to be working. Nine minutes into the second half Muller pounced after Mario Gomez had chested the ball down and beat Buffon with his drive from the edge of the box, only for Alessandro Florenzi to divert it clear with an extraordinary waist-high volley.

And then, after 65 minutes, came the goal. Gomez is often derided for his clumsiness and his wastefulness in front of goal, his position in the side essentially the result of Germany’s dearth in that area. But it was his clever pass that broke through Italy’s back line to release Hector, who crossed for Ozil to slam in from the edge of the six-yard box.

But Gomez remains Gomez. Three minutes later, he could have sealed the game, controlling a chip from Ozil only to see his goalward flick from no more than eight yards brilliantly tipped over by Buffon. Five minutes after that, he departed with a slight injury, giving a casual wave to the Germany fans as he went. The gesture immediately recalled Muller’s wave in similar circumstances in the 2012 Champions League final. Then, as here, the game was not won.

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Boateng may be the best center back in the world. He has had an excellent tournament. With 13 minutes to go, he smoothly shuffled Pelle off the ball to prevent a one-on-one. But then, after the resulting corner, half-cleared, had been returned to the box, he inexplicably raised his hands as though performing a star jump. Florenzi’s cross flicked up off Giorgio Cheillini and hit his right arm. Leonardo Bonucci coolly converted the first penalty he has ever taken in his professional career outside of shootouts.

Having got level, Italy settled back again and the game sputtered to penalties. It wasn’t a brilliant performance from Germany–again the reinforcement of the back line meant too great a diminution of attacking threat–but it was enough.

The jinx against Italy is over and Low can contemplate adding the Euros to the World Cup he won two years ago.