NATIONS - Euro 2020, Italy and Spain: the never-ending story
Italy and Spain again. Two nations that have so much in common: Mediterranean food, both deeply Catholic countries, both peninsulas. Spanish olive oil or Italian olive oil? Prosciutto crudo di Parma or jamon serrano Patanegra? The two countries share a history, and they have faced each other in the European Championship more than any other country, so it was only fitting that they gave us a spectacle that went down to the wire.
It was the sixth time the Meditrerranean countries faced each other in the Euros, and the match did not disappoint, fitting of a semi-final of a European Championship, with a final on the line. Italy started the match in their typical 4-3-3 formation, with the only change in the starting-11 being Emerson Palmieri on the left-side replacing the injured Spinazzola. Spain responded with a mirror formation, a 4-3-3 but with a falso nueve Dani Olmo who often exchanged positions with either Ferran Torres and Oyarzabal in order to confuse the Italian duo of Bonucci and Chiellini.
The match started with Spain controlling much of the possession, and Italy having trouble building from the back thanks to an effective Spanish press upfiepld. Spain's possession however was mostly harmless for Italy, who at one point seemed content to let Spain have the ball and hit las Furias Rojas on the counter. The first big chance of the game came courtesy of Niccolo' Barella, who hit the post on a curling shot on what was later called an offside position on the Inter midfielder. Spain was able to pierce the Italian line of defense on two occasions in the first half, but Dani Olmo had the ball played behind him the first time and the second time Donnarumma made a fantastic save after a rebound favored the Leipzig player who hit the ball thinking he had scored. Italy came close to scoring again on the verge of half-time, but Emerson Palmieri's effort hit the crossbar to the desperation of Italian fans.
The second half started with much of the same flow of the first, with Spain controlling the ball and Italy trying to hit the Iberians on the counter. Spain's possession however did not bother the Italian back line much, and Italy finally found the breakthrough in the 60th minute when Donnarumma started a quick counter from his own area that saw Italy threaten the Spanish area with three passes, once again underlining Spain's fragility on defense, when Federico Chiesa curled a wonderful ball on the far post, leaving Unai Simon with no choice but to look on as the ball found the back of the net. Italy's goal seemed to jolt Spain to life, as Luis Enrique started to make offensive changes, bringing in Morata for an underwhelming Ferran Torres, and Mancini answered bringing in Berardi for Immobile. Spain came close to the equalizer with Oyarzabal and Olmo, but both squandered chances, as Spain looked more and more desperate as the minutes passed, affording Italy more and more opportunities to hit them on the counter.
Berardi squandered an opportunity to make it 2-0 in the 68th, when he found himself one on one against Simon thanks to a wonderful Chiesa through ball, but scuffed the shot and the Spain goalkeeper was able to save comfortably on the near post. Luis Enrique, with nothing to lose, sent in striker Gerard Moreno for Oyarzabal and Rodri for Koke in the 70th minute, trying desperately to at least tie the game. Mancini answered with two changes of his own that were definitely defensive in nature, bringing in Pessina for Verratti and Toloi for Emerson. Once again, it was Italy who came closest to scoring a second in the 79th, with Berardi squandering another opportunity, after the Azzurri intercepted a ball in Spain's half, and the Sassuolo striker took a weak shot on goal that Simon saved without too many problems.
It was a turning point in the game, as Spain is immediately found the tying goal with Morata, after a masterful give and go with Dani Olmo that left the Juventus striker one on one with Donnarumma, who went the wrong way and the Spaniard buried the chance in the back of the net. From then on, Spain, feeling the momentum on their side, was more incisive in their play, trying to find a goal that would surely put them through to the final with barely 10 minutes left in the contest. Italy were forced to defend in their own area, but the Spaniards weren't able to find a decisive goal in the 90 minutes. Mancini, in the meantime, decided to bring in Belotti and Locatelli for Insigne and Barella, no doubt trying to break Spain's spell of prolonged possession and hold the ball far from a dangerous area for Italy.
Spain came out in the first half of extra time pushing hard for a goal, but Italy was able to thwart repeated attempts, as it looked like they were content to play for penalties while Spain were looking for a winner. In the second half the Azzurri looked more committed to playing the ball, pressing Spain high at times and giving the Spanish back line trouble, with Berardi having a shot blocked and later a goal disallowed in the 110th minute after a clear offside. Italy came close on a counter in the 115th minute as well, but Belotti's through ball for Berardi who would have been clear on goal was blocked by a Rodri back heel.
And like that this great match was to be decided on penalties, a fate not kind to either nation most of the time, as Spain lost to England on penalties at Euro '96 in the quarterfinals, while Spain beat Italy on penalties in 2008 en route to their first Euro Championship win and Germany did the same to the Azzurri in 2016. It looked good for Spain at the beginning, when Locatelli's effort was thwarted by Unai Simon, but Dani Olmo squandered the chance to go ahead when his shot went over the bar. Belotti scored his penalty with a low, powerful shot, and Gerard Moreno followed suit with an impeccable penalty to Donnarumma's top left. Bonucci kept the tie intact with a shot that sent Simon the other way and Thiago did the same against the new PSG goalkeeper. Bernardeschi buried his try in the top left corner, and Morata was hypnotized by Donnarumma who was able to save the Juve striker's attempt. Jorginho came to the spot, and cool as you like sent Simon the wrong way with a stutter step to send the Italy to the final.
After the 1994 World Cup final that saw the Azzurri end in heartbreak, this time a Brazilian gave all of Italy the greatest joy, following years of let downs, culminating in a loss to Sweden in the 2018 World Cup playoff. Maybe this time Italy can make a statement and come back as a team that is able to go head to head against the best in the World and win. And they certainly showed that tonight.