Mario Balotelli secured Italy a place in the Euro 2012 final against Spain as his goals defeated Germany in Warsaw.
Manchester City’s enigmatic striker provided Italy with the cutting edge and two first-half goals as Joachim Loew’s Germany failed to produce the impressive form that had seen them touted as potential winners.
Balotelli put Italy on the way to victory when he directed Antonio Cassano’s cross past Germany keeper Manuel Neuer then added a thunderous second from Riccardo Montolivo’s pass.
Mesut Ozil’s injury-time penalty provided the briefest anxiety for Italy, who were victorious moments later and Balotelli fell into the warm embrace of an elderly Italian lady as he made his way down the tunnel.
The 21-year-old limped off with cramp late on – but his work was done and Italy can now look forward to a meeting with world and European champions Spain in Kiev on Sunday.
Italy’s victory maintained their stranglehold on Germany as they remain undefeated in eight competitive encounters that take in five matches at the World Cup and three in the European championship.
And the scale of Italy’s achievement is illustrated even more by the fact that Germany had an additional 48 hours to prepare while Cesare Prandelli’s side were going through after extra-time and penalties against England.
Balotelli, along with the pass master Andrea Pirlo, was the inspiration but Italy’s defenders and goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon provided defiance and quality as Germany threatened in the first half then attempted to mount a recovery after the break.
German coach Loew responded to Pirlo’s master class against England by detailing the recalled Toni Kroos to monitor the veteran. The ploy was not a success.
Buffon and his German counterpart Neuer greeted each other warmly in the tunnel before kick-off in a prelude to a busy first 45 minutes for the pair.
Buffon was grateful Pirlo was well placed to clear Mats Hummels’ effort off the line while he also needed to be alert to deal with Jerome Boateng’s dangerous cross, which almost deflected in off Andrea Barzagli, as well as a shot from Kroos.
Italy edged their way into the game as Neuer saved from Riccardo Montolivo and they capitalised on this spell of pressure as Balotelli headed them in front after 20 minutes. Cassano was the creator as he escaped Hummels and crossed perfectly for Balotelli, who lost Holger Badstuber to head past Neuer.
Germany’s slack defending was in sharp contrast to their attacking and Buffon was again needed to save from Ozil and Sami Khedira before Balotelli once again demonstrated the talent that makes him such a compelling footballer and personality.
Montolivo’s pass exposed Germany, leaving Balotelli to take a touch before drilling a magnificent finish high past the helpless Neuer – although by stripping off his shirt in celebration he received a needless booking from French referee Stephane Lannoy.
Germany required emergency action and Loew took it at the start of the second half when he replaced the anonymous Lukas Podolski – watched by Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger after completing his summer move to the Emirates – and Mario Gomez with Miroslav Klose and Marco Reus.
A German response was to be expected and captain Philipp Lahm almost provided it, only to waste a presentable opportunity by firing off target – bringing a reaction from Prandelli as he removed Cassano and sent on Alessandro Diamanti.
Reus almost provided what Loew was looking for just after the hour but once again Buffon showed great athleticism to turn his free-kick on to the bar.
Claudio Marchisio was guilty of squandering the chance to wrap things up for Italy before Balotelli’s night ended prematurely with 20 minutes left as he gave way to Antonio di Natale.
Another spell of slick passing, inevitably, involving Pirlo, played Marchisio in again but one more he failed to find the finish as he flashed a low angled effort beyond Neuer but also the far post.
Germany, backed by magnificent vocal support, thought they had a late lifeline when Ozil scored from the spot after Federico Balzaretti’s handball – but nothing could stop Italy and Balotelli’s night of triumph.