On Saturday night in Bordeaux, France, two titans of football went head-to-head.
The quarterfinal match between Italy and Germany had been hailed as worthy of being the final of the 2016 UEFA European Championship, and the game lived up to its hype. The two teams waged a pitched battle at the Stade de Bordeaux in the mold of some of the classics.
It took 120 minute to try to separate them, but all efforts to do so were in vain. The score was locked at 1-1 when referee Viktor Kassai blew his whistle for the final time—but that was only the beginning. The standard five-round shootout wasn't enough to determine a winner, either. After a European Championship-record nine rounds, Germany won 6-5, eliminating Italy from a major tournament for the first time.
Italy went into the game having already exceeded expectations. Many pundits regarded Antonio Conte's team as the worst Italy would ever field at a major tournament. There was no proven goalscorer, and injuries to Claudio Marchisio and Marco Verratti in the months before the competition severely crippled the midfield.
The Azzurri were going to have to lean on Juventus' BBC defense. Made up of Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini and backed up by another B in legendary goalkeeper and captain Gianluigi Buffon, still playing at top level at age 38, they are one of the best defensive units in the game and have played together for six years at the club level. If they could keep teams out long enough, they could steal a goal at the other end and then hold out to win.
Expectations were such that scraping their way into the knockout rounds would have been considered a success. What they got was beyond what any fan could have hoped for.
Without high-level talent beyond his defense, Conte needed to rely on tactics to cause opponents trouble—and boy did he ever. He comprehensively outcoached Belgium's Marc Wilmots, shackling the high-powered offense of the world's second-ranked team and winning 2-0.
After slogging through a late 1-0 win against Sweden and losing by the same score with a second-string lineup against the Republic of Ireland, they came up against another big test in Spain. The two-time defending European champions hadn't lost to Italy since the 1994 World Cup, but Conte again got his tactics spot-on.
Italy attacked far more than anyone thought they would and stubbornly refused to let La Roja break them down. Spain didn't look capable of evening the score before Graziano Pelle slammed home an insurance goal for a 2-0 win.
If Italy had passed some stiff tests in the competition, Germany would be getting their first on Saturday. In the group stage, they beat Ukraine and Northern Ireland and played out a lifeless goalless draw with Poland. Winning the group with seven points, they eased into a round-of-16 game against Slovakia.
Italy fans likely remember just what the Slovakians can do to top teams a a major tournament—they beat the Azzurri 3-2 at the 2010 World Cup—but Germany easily dispatched them 3-0 to set up the quarterfinal showdown.
Die Mannschaft would have to pass their first real test with a 500-pound gorilla on their back—Germany had never beaten Italy in a competitive game. Indeed, the game was being played almost 10 years to the day of Fabio Grosso's famous goal in the 2006 World Cup semifinal. To get to the semis at the Euros, they would have to change history.
The game promised to be a showdown between superior talent and skill in one corner and tactics and team play in the other. But Germany's Joachim Low isn't a tactical slouch himself, and he decided to alter his shape to counter Conte's ever-present 3-5-2.
It was a risky move, especially for Low, who knows the dangers of tactical shifts like this firsthand. At Euro 2012, Low changed things around before the semifinal against Italy in an effort to shackle a rampant Andrea Pirlo but completely unbalanced his side. He took the brunt of the blame for the ensuing 2-1 loss.
This time, Low took away one of his creative midfielders, namely Julian Draxler, and added Benedikt Howedes to form a three-man back line of his own. The 3-4-3 formation was in direct competition with the 3-5-2 the Italians had executed so well throughout the tournament.
At the end of the day, the change wasn't nearly a mistake to the degree it was four years ago, but it wasn't exactly beneficial. The team was obviously getting used to the new system, and their passing, usually so fast-paced, slowed to a crawl early on.
The net effect was the two teams just cancelled each other out. Germany didn't ever get their tempo up to the point where they were pulling Italy's players apart from each other. They had the lion's share of possession—58.7 percent, according to WhoScored.com—but were rarely able to turn that into goalscoring opportunities.
Indeed, Italy got in the game's first shot, a fifth-minute effort by Emanuele Giaccherini that was blocked for a corner kick. Germany took over and put ball after ball into the box but couldn't find the ball that would unlock their opponents.
The first half didn't see another real opportunity until the 41st minute, when Joshua Kimmich's cross from the right wing found striker Mario Gomez, who headed over the bar. A minute later, the ball ping-ponged around the Italian box and fell to Thomas Muller, who could only fire right at Buffon.
Italy got their own blow in just before halftime, when Giaccherini slipped through the defense to latch onto a long ball from Bonucci. It wasn't a carbon copy of the move that resulted in Italy's opening goal against Belgium, but Giaccherini's pullback across the goal was blasted by Stefano Sturaro, whose shot was blocked by Jerome Boateng.
Italy wasn't faring all that well, either. Already weakened in midfield, the Azzurri were down to the dregs coming in. Sturaro was only playing because Daniele De Rossi—a key cog in Conte's system—was injured and his most direct replacement, Thiago Motta, was suspended because of yellow-card accumulation.
The midfielders who were left—Giaccherini, Sturaro and Marco Parolo—struggled against their counterparts on Saturday. Italy was hardly able to string together more than a few passes before losing possession. Pelle in particular was poor with his distribution from the top of the formation, often ballooning balls far beyond their intended targets.
It allowed Germany to start making their pressure pay. In the 53rd minute, Gomez managed to set up Muller at the top of the box, but his shot was cleared off the line with an acrobatic backheel by Alessandro Florenzi.
The Roma man was soon to go from hero to goat as Germany finally opened the scoring. In the 65th minute, Manuel Neuer launched a ball up the left side. Florenzi got to it first but headed it awkwardly into the path of Gomez, who took it into the wing and then found the overlap of Jonas Hector. The resulting cross was deflected into the path of Mesut Ozil, who beat a pair of defenders to tap home.
It was nearly 2-0 three minutes later, when Chiellini and Gomez tangled for the ball in the box and the Juventus man redirected it toward his own net from point-blank range. Buffon showed why he is still regarded among the world's elite by making a one-handed save.
It would prove a crucial intervention. As Florenzi lined up a corner kick in the 77th minute, Italy's lifeline came over in the form of a handball in the box by Boateng. The defender, who has been so good at this tournament, made his leap with his arms extended over his head. Chiellini was close to him when he sent a flick, but Boateng should have known better than to go in with his arms up.
Up to the penalty spot stepped, of all people, Bonucci. The center back has come a long way from the man who ballooned over during a shootout in the 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup. He took a quick stutter at the end of his run-up before firing home to Neuer's left.
The rest of the game, normal time and extra, passed fairly uneventfully—unless you were an Italy fan wondering when Conte was going to use his substitutes.
Conte has always jealously guarded his subs. One of his few weaknesses as a coach is he often waits way too long to deploy his reserves. The only change made in normal time was an enforced one, as an exhausted Florenzi came off for Matteo Darmian. But Conte waited until the second half of extra time to use his second, replacing Eder with Lorenzo Insigne.
He saved his final change for the dying seconds, throwing on Simone Zaza expressly to take a kick in the shootout. He may have been better served by putting on Insigne far earlier and by using either Zaza or Stephan El Shaarawy to have a few runs at a back three that was visibly tiring in the final stages.
That's not to say he deserves blame for the loss—his setup effectively throttled the world champions for 120 minutes. But his handling of his subs clearly didn't pay the dividends he was hoping for. That was especially true of Zaza, who stepped up for Italy's second kick of the shootout, blazing over after one of the strangest run-ups anyone has ever seen.
But Buffon backed up his Juventus teammate. He kept Muller out. Then Ozil hit the post. Ready to give Italy the lead was Pelle, who fired wide. On the fifth round of kicks, Bonucci stepped up and tried to go the other way to his first try, but Neuer was ready and stopped it. Only a Bastian Schweinsteiger miss would keep Italy alive, and he duly hooked the ball over the bar, sending the shootout to sudden death.
Italy's less experienced penalty-takers came on a novel approach to beating one of the best goalkeepers in the world. Rather than place their efforts, they would just blast it down the middle. Giaccherini and Parolo both did it. As did Mattia De Sciglio, whose shot cannoned in off the underside of the bar.
As sudden death moved on, Italy came tantalizingly close to winning. Buffon got his fingertips to shots from both Kimmich and Boateng, but the balls were placed just well enough that he couldn't keep them out. When Darmian fired a terrible penalty that was easily saved by Neuer, Hector was given the opportunity to win the game.
His shot was almost as bad as Darmian's, but it had more power, and it squirmed beneath Buffon, who was expecting to have to deal with the ball a lot closer to the post than it ended up being. And with that, Germany's hex when it comes to Italy was over.
This was a 50-50 game all the way. Penalties seemed like the only way to separate them, and they finally did. Italy go home beaten but with honor. Conte told Rai Sport (h/t Football Italia) after the game that "Being beaten by Germany on penalties is no shame." He's absolutely right.
This team deserves to be remembered as one that defied the odds and played far greater than the sum of its parts. Italy were expected to turn in one of the worst performances any Azzurri team had put up in a major competition. Instead, they came a whisker away from beating the world champions for a semifinal berth.
Italy's performance in this game and this tournament is something to be celebrated and built upon. World Cup qualifying starts in September, and Italy are set to share a group with Spain. If the Azzurri play the way they did on Saturday, they will be well on their way to Russia.