In light of Germany’s elimination against Italy here is a nostalgic, slightly more optimistic, trip down memory lane to a time that was more kind to the German national team. A rare moment in which Germany could at least claim, in an odd way, to have triumphed over the Italians.
With two wins from their first two matches against the Czech Republic and Russia, Berti Vogts’ German side came into their final Euro 1996 group game game against Italy with one foot in the quarter-finals – and only an unlikely combination of results separating them from qualification. Things would not be so straightforward for their Italian opponents however, who after their opening 2-1 victory over Russia had been upset by the Czech Republic by the same score. The Italians had come into the game knowing that even a win might not be enough to see them through, while in the other match the Czech Republic must have fancied their chances against the winless Russians, who themselves needed a mathematical miracle to have a chance of making the last eight.
The Nationaltrainer would make a number of changes to the eleven that had started earlier in the week against Russia. Markus Babbel had picked up yellow cards in the first two matches and was suspended, with Steffen Freund being drafted in to sit in front of sweeper Matthias Sammer. Stefan Reuter was out of the game with a pulled muscle and was replaced by Thomas Strunz, while there was the third attacking twosome in three matches as Fredi Bobić joined skipper Jürgen Klinsmann in place of Oliver Bierhoff.
Germany would start the match as favourites, but history had not been kind to them against a team that had over the continually been a thorn in their side in international competition. The Mannschaft had yet not managed to beat the Azzurri in a competitive fixture, a series than ran five matches stretching back to the 1962 FIFA World Cup in Chile. These five meetings had produced three draws (0-0 in the 1962 and 1978 World Cups and 1-1 in the 1988 European Championships), and two victories for the Italians, 4-3 and 3-1 in the 1970 and 1982 World Cups. Berti Vogts had himself featured in one of these matches, the classic and controversial quarter-final encounter in Mexico City in 1970 that would become known in Germany as the Jahrhundertspiel and in Italy as the Partita del Secolo, or “Game of the Century”.
After two mid-afternoon kick-offs this would be Germany’s first evening match, and on what was a dry Manchester evening Belgian official Guy Goethals got things underway. Both teams were playing in their traditional colours, in front of a packed Old Trafford crowd of 53,740.
The pattern of the match would be established right from the start, with the Italians having to go against their usual style to chase the game and the Germans adopting a far more defensive stance than in their first two games. Given the positive manner that Berti Vogts’ side had played previously, one wondered if these were the right tactics, particularly against a talented Italian side that would be throwing everything at them.
Knowing what they had to do Arrigo Sacchi’s side were quickly into their stride, and with just five minutes on the clock Andreas Köpke produced a fine save to deny Diego Fuser who latched onto Thomas Helmer’s poor headed clearance to hit a fine shot on the volley. Almost immediately the German ‘keeper was called into action again as he leapt above the melée to fist away the resulting Italian corner.
Köpke knew he would be in for a busy night, though his evening could and arguably should have ended just seven minutes into the match. A lazy attempt at a pass by Matthias Sammer was seized upon by Pierluigi Casiraghi, who bore down on goal as the German sweeper desperately attempted to make up ground behind him. As he prepared to round Köpke the Italian was sent tumbling by the ‘keeper’s desperate challenge, and Guy Goethals immediately pointed to the penalty spot. The Italians were quick to inform the referee that Köpke’s tackle had amounted to a clear professional foul, but much to their chagrin – and both Köpke’s and Germany’s relief – the official kept his hands away from his top pocket.
The diminuitive playmaker Gianfranco Zola lined up the kick, but his attempt at rolling it into the net was read correctly by Köpke who easily collected the ball. Zola’s effort was genuinely awful, but the fact that Köpke had been in the position to save it at all must have rankled with the Italians who had blown the perfect opportunity to take an early lead. To make things even worse for the Azzurri news was soon filtering into the ground that the Czech Republic had taken the lead in the other game against Russia, meaning that if things remained as they stood Sacchi’s side would be out.
The Italians had little time to be affected by the missed penalty, and they kept coming forward with purpose. Thomas Strunz was shown the yellow card on ten minutes for a late challenge on Roberto Donadoni, and a number of free-kicks were being given away by German defenders as they attempted to keep the marauding Italians at bay. Meanwhile in the other game at Anfield the Czechs had extended their lead, meaning that they stood on six points, one behind the Germans and two ahead of the Italians.
With just under half an hour gone Andreas Möller’s right-wing cross was headed narrowly wide of the target by Klinsmann, but it was a rare German foray in a half that had been completely dominated by their opponents. Donadoni was a constant source of danger, continually weaving his way down the left flank and one occasion testing Köpke with a rasping left-footed effort from distance that was neatly punched away by the German Torhüter. Five minutes before half-time Fuser used his pace to get past Eilts, but his desire to go for goal allowed him to be robbed of the ball with Casiraghi unmarked inside to his left.
As half-time approached Berti Vogts’ side were finally able to put a few passes together, each of which were warmly cheered by their supporters who had precious little else to cheer about in a match that had been completely dominated by the Italians.
With the Czechs two goals up at Anfield the Italians simply had to throw caution to the wind, and quickly picked up where they lad left off in the first half as Köpke was again called upon to keep out a Fuser shot with not even two minutes gone. Möller went close with a long-distance free-kick after fifty-three minutes, but a minute later loud cheers went up from the Italians in the crowd as news of not one but two Russian goals came in. As things stood the Germans headed the table with seven points, with the Czechs and Italians both on four. The Italians at this point were still in third place on account of their head to head record against the Czechs, but the Russian comeback had thrown things back into the balance again. One more goal for the Russians and Italy would be through even with the draw.
As the game reached the hour mark Italians spirits would have risen again as Donadoni ran onto a late challenge from Strunz, and just like in the first half the German defensive midfielder was shown the yellow card by Mr. Goethals. Two yellows of course made a red, and Strunz trudged off the field leaving his ten colleagues against a determined Italian side that probably felt that fortune was slowly starting to turn in their favour. At the start of the second half things had looked like a lost cause for Arrigo Sacchi’s side, but just fifteen minutes of football both here in Manchester and just up the road in Liverpool had turned the entire group on his head.
The ten-man German side had no choice now but to defend more deeply, which placed greater defensive responsibility on creative players like Häßler and Möller while at the same time providing further encouragement to their opponents. Sacchi threw on another forward in Enrico Chiesa for midfielder Roberto di Matteo, as the Italians continued to lay siege to the German goal.
With six minutes to go there was drama both on and off the pitch: Sammer’s header back to Köpke was almost intercepted by Casiraghi who then tumbled to the floor in trying to get past the German sweeper, and then the blue and white section of the crowd burst into life on hearing that Russia had taken the lead against the Czechs. Just like that, a draw would once again be good enough for the Italians.
No sooner had the Italians thought fortune was smiling on them, their hopes were again swiped from under their feet. The Russian lead had lasted only three minutes, as Czech substitute Vladimír Šmicer levelled the scores at Anfield in dramatic fashion. The Italians once again had to win, and were still encamped in the German half as the game went into injury time.
With two minutes of additional time played the full-time whistle went, and with it Italy’s hopes of making the last eight. While one might have felt the slighest pang of sorrow for the unlucky Italians, their being knocked out ensured that there would be no chance of cropping up again later in the tournament.
It might have been the Mannschaft’s least impressive performance of their three group phase fixtures, but to survive such a torrid assault by a high-quality opponent probably instilled far more confidence in the side than the first two victories had done. The defence had remained unbreached, and Berti Vogts’ side advanced into what would be a quarter-final against dark horses Croatia.
Vogts’ side would of course win that bruising encounter 2-1, before meeting hosts England in a dramatic semi-final that would see the Mannschaft through yet another European Championship final on penalties. That final would be a repeat of their opening fixture against the Czech Republic – a far less straightforward contest settled in extra-time by the competitions first golden goal from second-half substitute Oliver Bierhoff.
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