KRAKOW, Poland, June 29 (Reuters) - The idea of Italy reaching Sunday's Euro 2012 final in Kiev would have been laughed at in the piazzas and pizzerias of Rome and Milan a month ago but now Cesare Prandelli's side are there against all the odds.
Thursday's 2-1 semi-final win over Germany stunned not just Joachim Loew's side but the Italian nation itself.
A 3-0 friendly defeat by Russia and yet another match-fixing affair which robbed the Azzurri of left back Domenico Criscito just before the tournament were not ideal preparations for a side who never expected to challenge for the title anyway.
However, Italians often thrive in adversity as seen in 1982 and 2006 when they won the World Cup, and beat Germany along the way, following domestic betting and cheating scandals.
They have now gone through a difficult group, which included final opponents and holders Spain, played England off the park before winning the quarter-final on penalties and beaten in-form and free-scoring Germany with a clinical yet flamboyant display.
"We are living the dream with millions of Italians," said defender Giorgio Chiellini after Mario Balotelli's double extended Germany's record of never beating Italy in a major tournament.
"We will enjoy this victory a little then our thoughts turn to Sunday and we want to continue this dream."
Having matched Spain for long spells in their 1-1 Group C opener, the Azzurri will not be afraid of the world champions while Balotelli finding the net in such emphatic style will also give Italy fans confidence.
Apart from a superb volleyed goal against Ireland, Balotelli had missed an array of chances with critics wondering whether all the hype surrounding his wacky persona had covered up his failings as a footballer.
Germany now know all too well that on his day he can be a top performer, even if his opening header had much to do with Antonio Cassano's deft trickery and cross.
Prankster Cassano has had a tough year after recovering from heart surgery and still cannot complete a match, but he is Prandelli's joker in both senses of the word and that one bit of skill made all the difference.
Balotelli, in a ridiculous amount of space, then blasted in a second goal before the break with a swing of the boot that could easily have gone wide on another day.
This was Balotelli's match, however, as he gave the perfect riposte to opposition fans who have racially abused him at this tournament and the Gazzetta dello Sport newspaper which printed an ill-advised cartoon of him depicted as King Kong.
"This was the best night of my life," Balotelli said. "But I hope Sunday will be better. I hope to score four goals not two." (Editing by Ken Ferris)