Neuer and Hector the penalty heroes as Germany end Italy hoodoo

The shootout seemed to go on forever, but in the end, Germany’s collective strength of will – and some heroics from Bundesliga duo Manuel Neuer and Jonas Hector – pulled them through and into the semi-finals of UEFA EURO 2016 on Saturday.

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The match had finished 1-1 in normal time, a Mesut Özil goal having been cancelled out by Leonardo Bonucci’s 78th minute penalty. After an evening of drama and excitement capable of converting even the most sceptical observer into an admirer of the beautiful game, the dreaded penalty shootout was then required to separate the two sides.

Cue the world’s best goalkeeper Neuer responding to the call and following in the footsteps of Jens Lehmann, Oliver Kahn, Andreas Köpke, Harald ‘Toni’ Schumacher and so many other German goalkeeping greats to have excelled at the game’s crudest, purest, competitive form: penalty taker versus goalkeeper, a test of nerves from 12 yards.

Mats Hummels and 21-year-old Joshua Kimmich were among Germany’s scorers in the regular shootout, but after each side traded misses, proceedings entered sudden death. Italy’s Matteo Darmian saw his effort strongly pushed aside by Bayern’s no. 1, and up stepped 1. FC Köln’s Hector, one of Germany’s less heralded squad members and playing in his first major tournament – to beat Gigi Buffon and send his team and a nation wild. After missing just two of 28 spot-kicks in tournament shootouts, Germany had missed three of their first five here - yet somehow managed to squeeze through.

- © imago / Schüler

'I didn't care how it went in'

Neuer, a FIFA World Cup winner and veteran of 69 appearances for Germany, assessed the match soberly in his press conference, admitting, “I don’t remember how many penalty takers there were!” before adding, “It was a thriller but at the end of the day I think the better team won.”

Hector, by contrast, seemed to still be wearing his heart on his sleeve even in his post-match interview. “It’s hard to put it into words, but I’m just glad it went in,” he said, the relief and sheer elation palpable. “There weren’t many of us left to take a penalty and at that point you just have to step up. I put my heart in my hand and just wanted to get it in – I didn’t care how.”

- © gettyimages / Claudio Villa / Freier Fotograf

Germany the favourites?

Unlike most of his team-mates, Hector did not attend a Bundesliga club academy. Instead he made his senior debut aged 22 in Bundesliga 2 and debuted for Germany with just ten Bundesliga appearances to his name. His unorthodox rise to prominence makes his moment of glory all the more admirable and that much more enjoyable.

The world champions may now be the favourites to go all the way in France, and as a reward for beating Italy for the first time in nine attempts at a major tournament, they could now face a semi-final against the hosts, who take on Iceland in the tournament’s last quarter-final in Paris on Sunday (kick-off 21:00CEST/19:00GMT).

Regardless of the opposition, a mental block stretching back until 1962 has now been overcome in beating Italy, while Germany have kept up their record of never having lost a shootout since 1976. Joachim Löw’s men will fancy their chances against anyone.

Bernard Reeves