Tuesday, July 6, 2021

EURO 2020: Azzurri in the Final

Italy 1:1 Spain, London. Italy win 4-2 on penalties.

A wonderful semi final as semi finals go, with two titans clashing below the Wembley arch.

Italy reach Euro 2020 final

Wembley looked like little Italy but welcomed plenty of resident Spaniards too, a reminder of the capital's large expat communities and the wise choice of London for the European Championship climax.

Semi finals are often niggly affairs, with all the life sucked out of the tournament, but this was the pleasing opposite as we were entertained by an absorbing and high quality joust between two top-drawer sides.

Only penalties could separate them, which was fair after both sides had fought hard. The game was also played in a good spirit with few cautions and no bad feelings. 

Even into injury time, Luis Enrique was joking and smiling with Federico Chiesa and before the spot kicks, Giorgio Chiellini with Jordi Alba.

Italy won on penalties after Alvaro Morata turned villain from hero and hit his kick too casually, but it was hard to say Spain would not have deserved to advance too.

Luis Enrique's side made 16 scoring attempts compared to Italy's seven, enjoyed 65% of possession and made 2.7 times as many passes with an accuracy of 89% against Italy's 76%.

Italy have played joyously all tournament and their novel attacking approach under Roberto Mancini has been one of the Euros' great narratives. Reaching the final then seems a fine apex to their campaign, while Spain must admit their green squad needs more experience before challenging for trophies.

A silky surface after an afternoon of downpours was perfect for two skillful sides - La Roja schooled in possession football, Italy in the counter-attack.

There was a great tempo to start the game as Italy flew forward and Spain counter-attacked but soon the  roles were reversed to type.

Still early in the game, Pedri pierced the Azzurri defence but Mikel Oyarzabal, one-on-one, frustratingly could not control the ball. The Real Socidedad forward had been preferred to Alvaro Morata and Gerardo Moreno, but miskicked two shots later in the half and completely missed a free header in the second, before being substituted.

On 24 minutes the first shot of the game arrived as Dani Olmo fired one on target but Gianluigi Donnarumma dived low to this right to palm it away.

Italy had not had a shot in the first half until the last minute when Lorenzo Insigne released Emerson on the left and the Chelsea defender's shot from a tight angle clipped the bar and flew high.

This was the first time in the tournament Italy had been on the back foot, unable or unwilling to break the Spanish passing fest.

Mancini's side were also badly missing the injured wing-wonder Leonardo Spinazzola but still looked primed to strike on the counter, racing to rob Spain of any misplaced or under-hit examples of their many passes. 

The intensity picked up where it had left off after the break, Spain still dominating possession and threatening to split the defence, Italy rapier-like on the break. 

In the 52nd minute Sergio Busquets finished off a move by sidefooting a yard over the bar and at the other end moments later Federico Chiesa fired a grasscutter at Unai Simon; either team could score.

On the hour mark, the deadlock was broken as an Italian counterattack found the net. Chiesa snapped up Laporte's saving tackle from Ciro Immobile on the edge of the box and curled it in at the far corner, another exquisite snapshot from one of the stars of the Euros.

Substitute Domenico Berardi had fired a couple of half chances at Simon before Spain levelled.

Alvaro Morata picked the ball up from deep, charged down the middle and made a 1-2 with Olmo before wrongfooting the hitherto unbreachable Donnarumma.

Come extra time and both sides slowed with the inevitable cramps and injuries. Spain still passed and Italy still threatened on the counter, just a bit more raggedly with more cha. Domenico Berardi found the net in the 110th but was offside.

After Manuel Locatelli and Dani Olmo missed the first pair of penalties, Morata hit his without much conviction and Jorginho performed his leap and shoot spot kick which left Simon rooted to the centre as the Chelsea man stroked the ball into the corner.

Italy have probably been the best team in the tournament and could crown a great Euros and make it an amazing 34 games unbeaten under Mancini.

The last time England hosted the Euros, in 1996, the home nation fought a fiery semi against the eventual winners while the other semi was a turgid end of the line show between France and the Czech Republic.

Tonight's was wonderfully different. 

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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