“This is the greatest night of my life, but I hope Sunday is going to be even better,” Balotelli told reporters after Italy beat the tournament favorite 2-1 in Warsaw last night to set up a meeting with defending champion Spain in two days.
The first-half double made Balotelli, 21, the first Italian to score three goals at a European Championship, according to Infostrada Sports, putting him in a five-way tie atop the Euro 2012 goal-scoring list. It also gave Italy the chance to end its 44-year wait for a second continental title.
Balotelli made it 2-0 nine minutes before halftime when he finished off a counterattack by drilling a shot past Neuer into the top corner. After ripping off his shirt and flexing his torso in celebration, he was yellow-carded by the referee.
Claudio Marchisio and Antonio Di Natale, who replaced Balotelli in the 70th minute, had chances to extend Italy’s lead before Mesut Ozil’s stoppage-time penalty kick reduced the deficit. The breakthrough came too late as Italy extended its unbeaten run in competitive matches against Germany to eight.
“We should have made it 2-1 earlier,” Germany coach Joachim Loew said in his post-match news conference. “In those decisive moments when it came to scoring goals, they were cleverer than us.”
Balotelli said Italy “suffered a little bit in the end,” having not put itself out of reach of a Germany team that had entered last night’s semifinal on a 15-match winning streak in competitive games.
“It could have been prevented,” said Balotelli, who embraced his adopted mother, Silvia, in the stands after the final whistle. “The most important thing is the result and that we won.”
Italy, which secured its only European Championship title in 1968, has already played defending champion Spain at this year’s edition. The teams drew 1-1 on June 10 in the opening Group C match.
Both teams needed penalty shootouts to get past opponents on their way to the final. Italy overcame England 4-2 on penalties in the quarterfinals, while defending champion Spain beat Portugal 4-2 in a shootout two nights ago. Both matches finished 0-0 after regulation play and 30 minutes of extra time.
Italy coach Cesare Prandelli said his players had executed his plan to keep the ball away from the flanks against Germany and try to get Balotelli into space high up the pitch.
“I really need a team to have an idea, and Balotelli subscribed to this,” Prandelli told reporters. “He was always available, ran high up the pitch and did very well. He was in the game, he was very focused, concentrated and did exactly what I asked of him.”
Balotelli’s contribution wasn’t enough to earn the man of the match award, which went to midfielder Andrea Pirlo for the second straight game.
Still, Balotelli is now the bookmakers’ favorite to finish as the leading scorer at Euro 2012, having entered the 16-team tournament with one goal in eight previous games for Italy.
“Balotelli’s career has just started,” Prandelli said.
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