Remembering Italy at Euro 2012: Pirlo’s panenka, Balotelli at his best, and an unlikely run to the final

Although it ended painfully, Italy's unlikely run at Euro 2012 provided a lot of standout moments, from Andrea Pirlo's panenka to Mario Balotelli at his brilliant best.

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Despite remaining unbeaten during qualification, the scars of a group-stage exit at the 2010 World Cup meant that the Italy Men’s National Team went into the 2012 (Men’s) European Championship with lower expectations than usual, and coach Cesare Prandelli had few stars to depend on in an underwhelming squad.

Veterans from the 2006 World Cup success like Gianluigi Buffon, Daniele De Rossi and Andrea Pirlo remained, Juventus defenders Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini formed a base on which to build, but names like Ignazio Abate and Fabio Borini were unlikely to set pulses racing among Azzurri followers.

However, with the mercurial and unpredictable talents of attackers, Antonio Cassano, Alessandro Diamanti and Mario Balotelli, Italy drove themselves to an unexpected final appearance in the tournament held across Poland and Ukraine, but fell defeated to a generation-defining Spain.

Slow-starting Italy squeezed through Group C

Euro 2012 began how it would end for the Azzurri – with them facing reigning European and World champions Spain as huge underdogs. Yet a 1-1 draw in Gdansk, after taking the lead through Antonio Di Natale, gave the squad confidence of exiting Group C ahead of rivals for second place, Croatia.

That tournament was the last comprising four four-team groups, with no safety net for the best-placed third placed sides, which ultimately allowed Portugal to win Euro 2016 despite failing to win a single group game, so their second fixture against the Croatians was crucial.

Future Juventus striker Mario Mandzukic canceled a stunning Pirlo free-kick out to give both sides a point when the two met, leaving Italy hoping that Croatia would not better their result against Spain and that they themselves would overcome Ireland by two goals or more.

Goals from Cassano and Balotelli gave Italy the margin of victory needed – a 2-0 win – and had them edging through on goal difference until an 88th-minute Jesus Navas goal secured victory for Spain and made things a little more comfortable for Prandelli on the sideline.

Italy Men’s National Team players at Euro 2012. (@Azzurri)

Pirlo’s panenka completes masterclass against England

Pirlo arrived at Euro 2012 on the back of a debut season at Juventus. He had helped guide the Bianconeri to the Serie A title and showed AC Milan how unwise their decision to cast him aside was, such was his dominance in the quarter-final against England.

No Englishman got near Pirlo that night, with the Juventus playmaker dictating the game from his deep-lying role and making 131 passes – the most from any England player was 41 – it was as if he was operating in slow motion. Barely breaking sweat while his opponents shuffled frantically from left to right, Pirlo‘s cultured feet moved them around like puppets on strings.

The ultra-negative tactics of England coach Roy Hodgson dragged the Three Lions undeservedly to a penalty shootout, where Pirlo capped his efforts during open play with a moment of individual skill and ingenuity.

With Italy 2-1 down after Riccardo Montolivo had missed the previous kick, Pirlo strolled forward and coolly sent a subtle panenka chip down the middle of the goal, as England goalkeeper Joe Hart threw himself to one side and looking on in horror and confusion.

With that, Pirlo crushed Hart‘s ego and England‘s spirits. They missed their next two penalties.

Balotelli peaks against Germany in Warsaw

Daniele De Rossi in Italy Men’s National Team action against Germany’s Bastian Schweinsteiger at Euro 2012. (@Azzurri)

At just 21, Balotelli was a Champions League winner, had won three Scudetti and a few months earlier played the vital assist that helped Sergio Aguero clinch a first Premier League title for newly-rich Manchester City. That the Azzurri handed the youngster the No.9 shirt highlighted the hopes for the centre-forward.

In the semi-final against Germany, who would go on to lift the World Cup two years later, Balotelli was unstoppable.

Midway through the first-half, the ex-Inter youth powered a header past Manuel Neuer and moments later, when others would have paused and assessed their options, Balotelli hammered a thunderous long-range effort into the top corner.

An iconic shirtless pose followed, but his career never hit those heights again. No player scored more goals at Euro 2012 and he was named in the Team of the Tournament, and a move back to Serie A with Milan had its moments, but short-lived spells at Liverpool, Nice, hometown club Brescia, Marseille and Adana Demirspor tell their own story.

Mario Balotelli celebrates a goal for the Italy Men’s National Team at Euro 2012. (@Azzurri)

Spain quickly kill off Italy in Kyiv

Although Italy had achieved a deserved draw against Spain in their opening group game, the chances of overcoming them with the trophy shining in the floodlights on the sidelines looked like an uphill battle from the beginning.

Since lifting the European Championship trophy in 2008, most of the Spain squad had revolutionised football and experienced extraordinary success under the guidance of Pep Guardiola with Barcelona. The majority of the rest had helped Real Madrid fight toe-to-toe with the Catalans up to that point. Yet, amazingly, they put aside club differences to win multiple titles with their country.

Within 14 minutes, Barcelona‘s false-nine Cesc Fabregas was crossing for David Silva to head home the opener, and club teammate Jordi Alba doubled their lead just before the break. Xavi Hernandez and Xabi Alonso then gave Pirlo and his teammates a possession lesson of their own, before two late goals from Fernando Torres and Juan Mata ensured the scoreline reflected their dominance.

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