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Balotelli's electrifying performance lifts Italy past Germany, into final

WARSAW, Poland -- Three thoughts after Italy's 2-1 victory against Germany in the Euro 2012 semifinals, which sets up an Italy-Spain final on Sunday:

• Mario Balotelli: the man, the myth ... After two straight 0-0 snoozefests at Euro 2012, the most interesting man in world soccer brought the tournament back to life, scoring two powerful goals, including a thunderous finish on the break that crushed the favored Germans. Balotelli is a polarizing figure who often seems on the edge of madness, or at least yellow and red cards -- and sure enough, he got a yellow for taking his shirt off after his second goal -- but you can't ignore his surpassing talent. That's why he's on this Italian team, despite questions over his inclusion, and it's why coach Cesare Prandelli opted to use him in the starting lineup. The German defense had appeared breachable at times during the Euro, but it took Balotelli's power, speed and skill to expose it, with the help of some terrific assists by Antonio Cassano and Riccardo Montolivo.

Germany shot itself in the foot, too. The Germans were heavily favored and so confident that Marco Reus had proclaimed they were "the team to beat" in the entire tournament ahead of this game. But after failing to convert several chances early -- including one Mats Hummels shot that all-everything Andrea Pirlo cleared from the line -- the Germans completely broke down on the goals that put Italy ahead. Cassano completely turned Hummels in the box on the play that led to Balotelli's first goal, and the second Italian goal was a German fiasco, from the lack of pressure on Montolivo's long ball to the screwed-up offside trap that allowed Balotelli to barrel through the middle virtually unmolested. German coach Jogi Löw deserves some criticism, too. He had pulled some surprising strings with success in the quarterfinal, but his decision to give Toni Kroos his first start of the tournament backfired. Germany has an extremely talented young team with the potential to win trophies, but going out in the semifinals here is another opportunity lost.

Talking points can be silly sometimes. Italy deserves huge credit not just for winning this game, but also for the style in which it happened. Can we finally stop hearing about a supposedly "defensive" Italy that "parks the bus?" Prandelli's team is dynamic, skillful and fun to watch. (Pirlo in particular has been majestic in this tournament.) More than any other moment at Euro 2012, Balotelli's exhilarating second goal made me whoop involuntarily up in the stands. Let's also retire the discussion about whether Italy's two fewer days of rest would have an impact on the game. The Italians still had three full days off after their last game, which isn't a problem at all. Finally, there will be talk about the Germans having a mental block against Italy, which it has failed to beat now in eight competitive games all-time. Italy's win had nothing to do with a mental block and everything to do with a smart game plan well executed.

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