REWARD: Solid foundation powers adventurous Italy to victory
FOR a side who professed to have abandoned the catenaccio style of defence that has served them so well down the years, Italy have clearly not lost the art of defending well as they indulge in a more eye-pleasing approach.
A 2-1 semi-final victory over Germany on Thursday, that put Italy into a Euro 2012 final against holders Spain in Kiev tomorrow, was founded on the training ground of the Old Lady of Turin.
While 'Super' Mario Balotelli will make headlines all round the world with his superbly-taken double, and Andrea Pirlo again impressed with a game-dictating midfield display, the unheralded Italian defence, built on the rock of captain and goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, quietly gets on with the job.
Four of Italy's back five -- Buffon, Giorgio Chiellini and the central defensive pairing of Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli -- helped steer Juventus through an unbeaten league season which brought the reward of a Serie A title.
The Juve connection is not lost with the fifth man at the back -- Turin-born Federico Balzaretti, the least experienced of the defensive unit with 11 caps who played over 50 times for Juventus before being sold in 2007.
It is no coincidence that the mercurial Pirlo now also wears the black and white stripes of Juve after a long career with AC Milan.
At Euro 2012, Italy have conceded just three times in five games, once against Spain when they frustrated the world champions for long periods, once against a talented Croatian side, then right at the death on Thursday through a late penalty.
Italy's long line of defensive greats -- Giuseppe Bergomi, Franco Baresi, Alessandro Costacurta, Fabio Cannavaro and Paolo Maldini to name but a few -- could have another addition in Chiellini.
The 27-year-old, winning his 54th cap after recovering from a thigh injury that forced him to miss the quarter-final against England, did not put a foot wrong as Italy outmanoeuvred Germany at their own high-tempo game, then soaked up a barrage of late pressure that led to Mesut Ozil's spot kick after Balzaretti's handball.
Chiellini was not alone in proving his worth, with his teammates producing a series of expertly-timed tackles in the penalty area when Germany, rocked by Balotelli's two first-half goals, were more threatening after the break.
One by Bonucci epitomised Italy's solidity and went a long way to making sure Germany's unwanted record of never having beaten Italy in a competitive game remains.
Having made a double substitution at halftime, Germany began the second half well and it needed all of Bonucci's confidence and skill in the 56th minute to commit to a perfect tackle as Miroslav Klose burst into the area.
Later, when the back four could do nothing but watch as Marco Reus's free kick curled over the wall and seemingly into the roof of the net, Buffon stretched his sturdy frame and tipped the winger's effort on to the crossbar.
Coach Cesare Prandelli had said he would not alter his tactics to counter Germany's pressing game and he was true to his word.
With Pirlo not alone in the engine room, Italy build from the back and through a sturdy midfield containing the steel of Daniele De Rossi, the guile of Claudio Marchisio and the Pirlo-esque playmaking abilities of Riccardo Montolivo, provider of the fine long pass through to Balotelli for their second goal.
Add forward Antonio Cassano, who has recovered from heart surgery and set up the first goal, to a frontline alongside Balotelli and it is clear Italy have weapons to threaten Spain.
A second European Championship title, 44 years after their first, could be in the Azzurri's sights. Reuters