Italy vs Spain: Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci out to graduate with honours after masterclass in defending

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 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

It was in 2018 that Jose Mourinho claimed Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci should be giving lectures at Harvard University about how to be a defender.

The centre-back pairing had just helped Juventus secure a 1-0 win against Manchester United, who

Mourinho was coaching at the time, and he was glowing in his praise.

“Juventus have a different level of quality and stability and experience and knowhow and, at the base of the team, they have Bonucci and Chiellini,” he said. “That’s the base that allows them to play with the freedom that they play in attack.

“Mr Bonucci and Mr Chiellini could give some Harvard University classes about how to be a central defender.”

Three years on, and despite having a combined age of 70, Bonucci, 34, and Chiellini, 36, remain masters in the art of defending. They have been the rock at the heart of a defence that has conceded just twice at Euro 2020 on the way to tonight’s semi-final against Spain.

The duo have done exactly what Mourinho described them doing three years ago for Juventus — providing a solid base for attacking players to flourish.

Italy’s 32-game unbeaten run has featured eye-catching forwards and midfielders, such as Lorenzo Insigne and Marco Verratti, but Bonucci and Chiellini are the cornerstone of the Azzurri’s success.

“It’s been a number of years now that it’s been said they’re the best centre-back pairing in world soccer,” said Italy boss Roberto Mancini.

“Their strength is that they want to prove that is still the case match in, match out, and I think that’s very important for a player, to prove that they are the best in their position with every game that passes.”

Tonight, Bonucci and Chiellini will be trying to stop a side that has scored 11 goals in their previous three games.

Spain have blown hot and cold during Euro 2020 — they failed to win their opening two group games — but on their day they can be devastating, scoring five in two of their matches.

“Spain have been extraordinary for years, even if now there has been a change and they are a younger side,” said Mancini. “They have a good coach and very good players.”

Leading Spain’s attack will be Alvaro Morata, who Bonucci and Chiellini know very well. The former Chelsea striker is in his second stint at Juventus, after joining on loan from Real Madrid last year.

“Alvaro is a friend of mine, we often spend a lot of time together in Turin,” said Bonucci.

“He’s a great guy and a terrific footballer, a complete striker, because he can run into space, he holds the ball up well. He is one of the best centre-forwards in world football and we need to make sure we are switched on tonight, not only to keep an eye on Morata but the team as a whole.”

Bonucci and Chiellini are not averse to getting physical and they, slightly tongue in cheek, told Morata to “wear a helmet” before the sides met at Euro 2016, when Italy won 2-0.

Morata will be ready for whatever comes his way, revealing during an interview with the Daily Mail in 2017 that training with Chiellini is like going “into a cage with a hungry gorilla and trying to take his food”.

In the quarter-finals, Bonucci and Chiellini found a way to keep Romelu Lukaku quiet as they knocked out Belgium — and now they will be hoping to do the same to Morata and Spain.

The centre-backs want to go all the way at Euro 2020. Harvard will have to wait for now.

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