There will be a day when Italy’s monumental unbeaten run, 33 games and counting, comes to an end but for the team that faces them in Sunday’s Euro 2020 final it will be the great challenge of the tournament to defeat the side that have overcome all sorts of opposition on all sorts of occasions.
Roberto Mancini’s unstoppable boys in blue may see the obstacle of either England or Denmark as just one more step in the road and they could be forgiven for that confidence given how they overcame Spain through 120 minutes and nine penalties. This was tournament football at its most raw and absorbing: Italy’s penetration game against Spain’s possession game and the latter almost worked for Luis Enrique’s excellent young side.
Yet for Mancini, there always seems to be a way, and so it proved around 10.45pm at Wembley when, with that trademark hop and skip the Chelsea midfielder Jorginho sealed the penalty shoot-out for Italy. They had just 35 per cent of the possession and completed 307 passes to the 833 notched by Spain yet it was they who inevitably held their nerve through the penalties, which encompassed the usual list of winners and losers.
For Alvaro Morata it was a night of extremes: left out the first XI, then a second-half substitute who gave Spain the crucial equaliser and– finally – the man who could not beat Gianluigi Donnarumma when it mattered. There must have been a reason that Luis Enrique left the Juventus striker out this game, when he was due to come up against his club-mates Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini. Morata was not the only player who missed a penalty. The substitute Manuel Locatelli saw his saved by Unai Simon. Dani Olmo struck his towards Wembley Park underground station. After that there were five perfect penalties until Morata.
For the Juventus striker, this was a tough night that leaves questions once more. For others in the Spain side, Euro 2020 has felt like the start of an era which may see this team step out of the shadow of its predecessors. The 18-year-old Canarian Pedri, hot-housed at Barcelona, was outstanding – so too Olmo, of Real Sociedad, and at last Spain found a rhythm that made them irresistible at times. It was their misfortune that they have come up against an Italy team who are borne along on a confidence that seems unbreakable.
They had taken the lead through Federico Chiesa, with a goal of such swiftness that even the great elasticity of Spain’s shape could not spring back into form in time. It came on the hour after a first half in which it felt like Enrique had got his Spain players in the right positions at the right times. They started to flow – slowly at first and then quite beautifully. Italy’s big rugged game – the breaking through lines, the swift running onto the ball in behind – juddered to a halt.
In midfield, Spain had supremacy in numbers. The high press from the team in white was calibrated such that it sent the Italian defenders receiving the ball into the middle of the pitch, and it was there that Spain’s midfield isolated their opponents and picked them off. The Spanish midfield was a blend of Sergio Busquets, Spain’s last warrior from 2010; Diego Simeone’s Atlético Madrid general Koke and the precocious Pedri.
Between them they dragged Italian midfielders in and passed around them. Out of possession Spain came swarming after the ball, the same way that the great Barcelona teams have always done. Pedri sprinted after an early counterattack and slid in to hook the ball out from among the pounding feet of the Italian advance. This was high-grade 21st century Spanish football played by a group of footballers who had been patchy at best before then in this tournament.
Italy looked at what they were left with and decided it was mostly their old-fashioned grinding defence – but first they needed a lead to protect. They had hit the post at the end of the first half through Emerson Palmieri, the Chelsea man who barely plays at Stamford Bridge but got his place with the injury to Leonardo Spinazzola. On 60 minutes they finally cracked it.
It was a matter of seconds from the moment the ball was rolled out from Donnarumma to Marco Verratti and onto Lorenzo Insigne who crossed the halfway line just as Spain were sensing the danger that awaited them. From there it went onto Ciro Immobile, all of it at a frantic pace. His shot was blocked but the next wave was arriving at pace and that was Chiesa, the attacker who has arrived in form and ruthless for Euro 2020. He shaped his right foot shot around Simon and into the net.
For Luis Enrique, the problem was obvious. Such a high quality of passing, such patience in the build-up play but no finisher. The Italians could see the end in sight and they were settling in for the long siege. Chiellini and Bonucci – the rock and the hard case – were deep in their own territory and keeping all the spaces closed. In the immediate aftermath of the goal, Enrique had sent on Morata.
Spain had threatened before but with ten minutes left it finally felt that they had Italy retreating and gaps opening up. Morata exchanged passes with Olmo and was in on goal. He never looked like missing. This was the moment for Luis Enrique’s players to seize the day and they were the better side in extra-time, or rather they attacked more. Yet by the end of 120 minutes they would, for all their effort, have managed four attempts on the Italy goal. No more than their opposition.
There may be a better alternative to Morata among the great production line of Spanish players although in moments he looked like he might win this tie. For Mancini, and his old Sampdoria companions Gianluca Vialli and Attiliio Lombardo, both among the staff, this triumph was a precious moment. Old Wembley was where they lost a European Cup final 29 years ago to a great Barcelona team and now they return on Sunday with a different European final on their minds.