Spain stretch Italy but pay the final penalty

Italy 1 — Spain 1 (after extra time)
(4-2 on penalties)

Italy are now unbeaten in 33 straight matches, yet in a game of the highest quality on this cold summer’s night a wonderful Spanish team showed that the Azzurri are beatable.

Gone, for long stretches of this Euro 2020 semi-final, was the hypermodern team that Italy’s manager Roberto Mancini had constructed: a side that always wants the ball and plays in the other team’s half.

Spain, who often looked like a team of midfielders, outpassed Italy and managed 65 per cent possession. They created untold chances, even if their players — better footballers than shooters — sometimes seemed to regard scoring as a detail.

Italy’s goalscorer Federico Chiesa was named “star of the match” but their best man was probably 22-year-old keeper, Gianluigi Donnarumma, a daunting presence in the penalty shootout. He has a shot at having as long and illustrious a career as his predecessor Gianluigi Buffon.

But Spain’s star was a mere 18-year-old: Pedri, the midfielder who just over a year ago was playing second-division football on his native Canary Islands. When he joined Barcelona he was still too young to drive, and took taxis to his first matches.

On Tuesday night he completed all 55 passes he attempted in the first 90 minutes, most of them in the opposition half. Let that sink in: no missed passes all game, against Italy, in a European Championship semi-final. We shall hear from him again.

Domenico Berardi of Italy, right, against Spain’s Pedri © Andy Rain/POOL/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Spain’s coach Luis Enrique said: “No 18-year-old has done what Pedri has done in any big competitions, whether it’s the World Cup, Euros or the Olympics. I’ve never seen anything like that. Its devoid of all logic.”

Spain’s central midfield aligned this coming man alongside a going man: the legendary Sergio Busquets, nearly 33, who may have played his last international match here. Together they achieved the remarkable feat of dominating possession against Jorginho and Marco Verratti.

Mancini admitted afterwards: “We wanted to play our usual brand of football, but Spain were better on that score. They are a top side. They pressed us very high and starved us of possession.”

Chiesa said: “We were operating against a team that has played like this for 15 years.”

What Italy had over Spain was a Plan B: whereas Spain always and only possess, pass (generally short) and press, and do that better than any other team in Europe, Italy could fall back on their ancient weapons of deep, massed defence, brilliant goalkeeping and rapid counter-attacks. Their defenders allowed Spain 16 shots, but did block five of them. The Juventus duo of Giorgio Chiellini, 36, and Leonardo Bonucci, 34, have lost some mobility but know their craft.

On the counter, Italy targeted the space behind Spain’s centre-backs, Aymeric Laporte and Eric García, both usually reserves at Manchester City, who, in true Spanish fashion, looked more like midfield ballplayers than specialist defenders.

Italy’s goalscorer Federico Chiesa © Pool via REUTERS

Spain’s offside trap was set daringly high up the field, and often creaked. Italy’s tireless striker, Ciro Immobile, regularly popped up in space behind them.

On the hour, this produced the game’s opening goal: Immobile could not keep possession but the ball fell to Chiesa, who curled in a beauty just inside Unai Simón’s post. “Immobile ran like a madman,” said Chiesa in tribute.

Alvaro Morata, on as a substitute, struck Spain’s deserved equaliser 20 minutes later, after exchanging passes with the thrilling young forward Dani Olmo.

Italy, which earlier in the tournament set a new world record of 1,168 minutes without conceding a goal, have now let in one in each of their last three games.

Italians outnumbered Spaniards among the 60,000 at Wembley, a crowd whose noise recalled a long-lost era before the pandemic.

The shootout was held at the Italian end, and Italy had the additional benefit of shooting first. Manuel Locatelli missed their first kick but their four other shooters came through, while poor Olmo and Morata missed for Spain.

“We are delighted to have delivered this wonderful night of entertainment for the Italian people. But we have one game to go,” said Mancini. “When you’re involved in such an intense World Cup or European Championship, there is always a match you have to dig in and suffer. It was going to be this match that was going to be the tough one.”

Tuesday’s game may indeed prove to have been a tougher test for Italy than whatever Sunday’s final produces. It is hard to imagine either England or Denmark winning the midfield against them, or even aspiring to win it, the way the Spaniards did.

Having to expend energy on extra time and show their favourite penalty strategies are potential disadvantages for Italy but, on the other hand, they will start the final with one more day’s rest than their opponents. They would be worthy winners of this tournament.

But Spain would have been, too.

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