UEFA Euro 2020 has been a breeding ground of newness while harking back to the familiar tropes of cup football.
There’s a kind of uncanny steeliness that inflects cup-winning teams. They are not always on the top of their games, but they always eke out the right results. This quality was evident in the French team that won the 2018 FIFA World Cup. Roberto Mancini’s Italy are doing a France at UEFA Euro 2020.
In the first semi-final of Euro 2020 on Tuesday, old footballing royalty in the form of Italy and Spain locked horns at the Wembley. After 120 minutes of gruelling, captivating football, the Azzuri prevailed in a penalty shootout characteristic of high-pressure knockout football.
But Italy, who had often played champagne football in this tournament to break stereotypes, won it in a way few would have envisaged. The game was supposed to be a grand midfield battle, with Koke, Sergio Busquets and Pedri jostling for control of the middle of the park with Jorginho, Marco Veratti and Nicolo Barella.
However, Mancini’s Italy relinquished that battle even before it began, letting Spain play their brand of passing football while preferring to sit back and soak up the pressure. Spain registered 71% of the ball, took 16 shots and played 500-odd more passes than their adversaries. Indeed, they had control of the game for large swathes.
Yet, despite eking out a few chances, Spain never really carved open the Italian defence except for one instance when Alvaro Morata broke through to level the game in the 80th minute.
Old warhorses Georgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci patrolled the Azzurri perimeter with alacrity. Italy successfully metamorphosed into a fine counter-attacking team that sliced open an over-committed Spanish side through an incisive through ball from Lorenzo Insigne that was half-cleared by Aymeric Laporte. The ball landed on the feet of winger Federico Chiesa, who applied a sumptuous finish, curling it into the far corner to give Italy the lead on the night.
Many felt Spain deserved more from the game having done all the running and passing. But eventually, they failed to find the cutting edge that could have sliced open their fellow behemoths.
Italy did enough to take the game to penalties, where they held their nerves. After missing their first spot-kick, the Azzurri’s impressive custodian Gianluigi Donarumma saved a crucial kick from Morata, who had drawn the teams level. Luck, strategy or a mixture of both have taken Italy to the cusp of the UEFA Euro 2020 trophy.
UEFA Euro 2020: Italy have impressed with their adaptability, but might meet their match in the final
Italy epitomised their spirit of adaptability in another heavy-duty knockout clash in the second round against Belgium. They moved the ball forward in fluent fashion in the first half to score two beautiful goals and transformed into a dirtier, grittier team to stop Kevin De Bruyne and co from bagging the equaliser.
Italy looked a great attacking force in the group stage, and Mancini was lauded for breaking the catenaccio mould and bringing to UEFA Euro 2020 a new, entertaining Azzurri team. But as the tournament wore on, Italy have begun to increasingly demonstrate a penchant for the darker arts and defensive nous of former Italian teams.
However, come Sunday, Italy might meet an adversary not keen to fall into their traps as pliantly as the two giants they have cornered in the Euro 2020 knockouts so far. While Belgium were run ragged by Italy’s pace in the second round, Spain overcommitted men after being lured by a deep-lying Italy side and paid the price.
England have shown they value defensive shape to adventure and have two capable defensive midfielders in Declan Rice and Kalvin Rice who will also try their best to break up Italy’s rhythm in midfield if the Azzurri try to take the initiative like they did against Belgium.
While England are Italy’s likeliest final opponents, Denmark have shown sterling team unity on their way to an unlikely semi-final appearance at Euro 2020. If they spring a huge upset to reach the final, the 1992 winners might just be buoyant enough to tackle anything the Azzuri throw at them.
In other words, Italy might have to overcome their toughest battle yet to lay their hands on the Euro 2020 trophy and end their over 50-year wait for their first European title.
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