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Roberto Mancini’s side have appeared at the national stadium twice during the tournament and, despite not always being at their best, on both occasions they have found a way to win.
That was certainly the case last night, as Italy defeated Spain 4-2 on penalties to book a place in Sunday’s final.
Before the drama of penalties, the two teams could not be separated during a pulsating 120 minutes that made this match a strong contender for game of the tournament. If England v Denmark tonight is half as good, then the 60,000 at Wembley are in for a treat.
This game was, at times, breathtaking and the quality of Federico Chiesa and Alvaro Morata’s goals were fitting. Chiesa curled his into the far corner on the hour mark, while Morata showed the kind of composure he wished he’d had in the shootout.
“When you’re involved in such an intense tournament, there always comes a game where you have to dig in and suffer,” Italy boss Mancini said. “Almost no one believed we could do it, but the players believed right from day one we could do something incredible.”
Before Italy’s first game of the knockout stages, their last-16 tie with Austria at Wembley, Leonardo Bonucci warned his team-mates that “occasionally you need to be big, bad and ugly”. He was proved right against Austria, as Italy needed extra-time to win but, after this victory over Spain, Bonucci has been fully vindicated.
Under Mancini, Italy have become much more of a progressive and possession-based side, but they were unable to be that last night. Spain rolled back the years and dominated possession with the type of performance we saw during their pomp a decade ago.
Manager Luis Enrique even dusted off the old tactic of playing without a recognised striker, as Morata was left on the bench and Dani Olmo was deployed as a false nine. Their midfield was excellent, marshalled superbly by captain Sergio Busquets. It was 18-year-old Pedri, however, who stole the show.
He did not misplace a single pass during the 90 minutes and it felt incredibly cruel for him to be on the losing side after such a performance.
“Is everyone paying attention to what a kid of 18 has done at this Euros? What Pedri’s achieved, nobody has seen before,” said Enrique. “Not even when Andres Iniesta burst through.”
If Spain put on a vintage passing performance, then Italy countered it by calling upon their tradition of dogged defence and grit. They spent the majority of the game throwing themselves into tackles and blocks, and it was no real surprise to see they finished the match with just 30 per cent possession.
Spain’s dominance forced Italy to change tack and go direct. That was how their goal came and, for all the joy Spain’s hundreds of passes brought, Italy’s swift counter was just as eye-catching.
Goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma rolled the ball to Marco Verratti, who quickly set Lorenzo Insigne on his way. The forward tried to find Ciro Immobile and, when the pass was blocked, Chiesa picked up the ball and bent it into the far corner. The 23-year-old has now scored twice at Euro 2020, both times at Wembley, and he will be tough to stop in the final.
“I cannot describe my emotion with words,” he said. “It was a tough match, Spain were great but we come back here on Sunday for the final. We will see.”
This felt like a case of the best team on the night losing but, arguably, the best team at the tournament winning. Denmark and England will probably be relieved they cannot face Spain on Sunday, wondering how they would get the ball off them.
They should not, however, underestimate an Italy side who have all the nous and spirit needed for tournament football. Their unbeaten run under Mancini now stretches to 33 games and they have developed an enviable knack of always finding a way to win.
They have the added bonus, too, of a huge Italian population in London, who took over Wembley last night and painted it blue. They believe it is Italy’s year and, as they sung last night, football isn’t coming home, it’s ‘coming Rome’.