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Balotelli muscles Italy into Euro '12 grand final

WARSAW, Poland -- Mario Balotelli flexed his muscles in more ways than one.

The 21-year-old Italy striker quieted his multitude of critics by delivering Italy to an unexpected spot in the European Championship final. Having been severely criticized for failing to take advantage of his opportunities earlier in the tournament, Balotelli scored twice in the first half Thursday to give Italy a 2-1 win over Germany.

After his second goal, Balotelli stripped off his jersey and flexed his muscles in a defiant pose — even if that meant an automatic yellow card. For someone whose behavior often treads on the verge of craziness, it was an emblematic moment.

“This is the greatest night of my life, but I hope Sunday is going to be even better,” Balotelli said, looking ahead to the final against defending champion Spain. “In the opening matches I had a lot of chances, and I wasn't able to finish them. But In football you also need luck.”

In the 20th minute, Balotelli had no trouble getting past Holger Badstuber to head in a pinpoint cross from Antonio Cassano. Then in the 36th, he received the ball behind the defense and blasted a long shot into the top right corner.

With three goals, Balotelli moved level with four other players for the tournament scoring lead. After the match, Italy coach Cesare Prandelli was asked if this was the best match of Balotelli's career.

“Balotelli's career has just started,” Prandelli said.

Meanwhile, Germany extended its winless streak against Italy in major tournaments to eight matches. The Germans failed to trouble Italy for much of the match, although Mesut Oezil scored a consolation penalty in injury time after Federico Balzaretti was whistled for a handball.

Germany had entered the game on a world record 15-match winning streak in competitive matches.

“It's a very bitter defeat,” Germany captain Philipp Lahm said. “We tried everything in the second half but our goal came too late. We have so much potential in our team but if we cannot give the right performance at the right time or are not clever enough, then we lose such a game.”

The final in Kiev, Ukraine, will be a rematch of Italy and Spain's 1-1 draw that opened Group C.

“We showed we're on Spain's level and that's where we started this run,” Italy midfielder Claudio Marchisio said. “It's no longer a question of fear. Now we've got to pull out everything we still have inside ourselves.”

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Italy's Mario Balotelli scores the first goal during the Euro 2012 soccer championship semifinal match between Germany and Italy in Warsaw, Poland on Thursday, June 28. (AP)

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