After offering a vision of the future, and a game for the ages, Italy reach the final of Euro 2020 in the most vintage manner.
They hung on, dug in, and eventually got through on penalties. This remarkable victory over a resilient Spain was the first game they didn’t really deserve to win, but that will perhaps only foster belief that they will win this European Championship.
That’s the other side of these victories. There is a real value in the sheer valour shown, the defiance, the spirit of battle. It’s just that, while they more than deserve to be in this final for their whole campaign up to this, Spain deserved it on the night.
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Luis Enrique’s young side ultimately suffered a setback too far. Their campaign almost reached a sadly inevitable conclusion as Alvaro Morata – the player who initially saved them – missed their fateful last kick. Jorginho simply stroked home Italy’s. He gave his country revenge for 2008, as they now have even greater conviction about winning this summer.
Before moving on to the many consequences of this thrilling match, it is worth simply reflected on what a sensation it was. This is what tournament football is supposed to be about. It had everything except the summer heat that adds a charge to the air, but even the rain ended up adding to the speed of the encounter and the flow.That’s the best word for a game that was one of the best this competition has seen. It never let up, with intense Spanish attack so often followed by sleek Italian break. It pushed both teams to the limits, especially Roberto Mancini’s. They looked sapped long before the end of extra-time, only to muster just enough resolve.
Much of the game was a shock to Italy’s system, it must be said. And that’s literally. They spent long periods forced out of the new approach that has electrified this tournament, and instead forced into a much more traditional game. That was without the ball, and trying to constantly reshape their defence.
They weren’t always completely comfortable doing so, either. That should offer encouragement to either England or Denmark. Spain’s confident passing punched a number of holes in the backline – with the peerless Pedri so often cutting holes with the most incisive passes.
It’s just Spain again didn’t quite have the same confidence in their finishing. Mikel Oyarzabal failed to control the ball when put through early on – by Pedri of course – and Dani Olmo had one close-range shot saved when he maybe should have scored.
There were times when it felt like Spain could have done with a finisher. Whether Morata is that finisher has been one of the debates of the tournament. His campaign had a tragic narrative inevitability to it. Whether he would have done better than Oyarzabal for that header on the hour may end up one of the regrets of the tournament.
Against that, Italy mostly looked to hit quick balls in behind. They frequently caused chaos, particularly as regards Unai Simon’s position. There often felt the finest of lines between comfortably clearing and the breakthrough the game warranted.
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That was never truer than for Nico Barella’s chance in the first half. With Simon stranded, and Italy hurrying to find a way through, Sergio Busquets so calmly nicked the ball off Barella.You could say Spain should have heeded that warning, but the truth was probably that they knew all about it and persevered anyway. Luis Enrique does feel they can always create enough chances. That is what he is trying to breed into this team.
It will just create chances for the opposition out of nothing.
Italy’s eventual moment was very far from nothing. It was yet another contender for goal of the tournament, from one of the blistering moves that have seen them seize this tournament. Gianluigi Donnarumma swept the ball up to Lorenzo Insigne, whose slide-rule pass required a sliding challenge from Aymeric Laporte.
The ball only fell to Chiesa, who offered a touch of poise to a flowing move and a flowing game, before unleashing the most uplifting of finishes.
The forward curled the ball around Simon in simply delicious fashion, and with more than a few shades of Fabio Grosso 2006. Italy had the feel of champions.
But they had to prove it by fighting their way out. This just wasn’t the kind of vintage Italian defending that characterised 2006, though. Both sides just kept going for it. It was perhaps that which created the space for another contender for goal of the tournament, although the exquisiteness of Spain’s exchange was only to be applauded.
Morata had come on with a real sense of mission, and had already thrust through the Italian defence twice. He this time worked the ball through to Dani Olmo, who had been growing into one of the best players of the night. The playmaker returned the ball, and Morata just continued the sequence by simply passing the ball into the net.
It was masterful, and scarcely the finish of someone who has suffered a crisis of confidence. We were only to see that in the penalties.Morata still wanted more at that point. Anyone that wasn’t a supporter of one of the teams wanted more. The event that was creating such gripping tension was creating such enthralment for everyone else.
The issue for Italy by then was that Spain looked like they had more. Italy just didn’t have the same energy and could do little other than retreat. There were extended periods of extra-time when Spain had them penned in their own box.
As with Switzerland in the quarter-finals, the sense was that Italy knew their best chance was penalties, and that it was a race against time – and often the Spanish attack – to get there.
They came through. The brilliant Donnarumma stood up, by getting down strongly. The team of the tournament fight their way to the end of this tournament, if in a manner no one expected.
Photo Credit: Getty