Italy’s dark horses hit the front for the final stretch
Before the tournament began, World Cup winners France were rightly favourites to add another European crown to their collection. World No1 Belgium were also fancied, with holders Portugal and tournament specialists Germany among the popular picks. There were also, as ever, the believers England’s years of hurt would finally end.
And then there was Italy. Their absence from the 2018 World Cup was an embarrassment but also perceived as a reflection of the limits of their current crop. Instead, a quiet renaissance was under way. Roberto Mancini had restored belief and added energy to their play. They had racked up a long string of matches unbeaten and built confidence. They were labelled as dark horses.
Well they’ve hit the front for the final stretch of this race to Euro 2020 glory.
An assured series of wins in the group stage, in which they didn’t concede a goal, built the platform. A surprisingly tricky last-16 tie with Austria demonstrated their strength in depth and steel. An impressive win over Belgium underlined their quality – and streetwise skills to get over the line. And they battled hard before holding their nerve from the spot to come past Spain in the semis.
The defence has pedigree, the midfield has class, and the attack can be swift and dangerous. They have come through the tough side of the draw and earned their place in the final. No one is underestimating them now.
Spain’s lack of firepower finally catches up with them
The immutable law of penalty shoot-outs is that, at one time or another, every club or country loses the lottery.
If there was any justice to it, Spain would have won Tuesday’s semi-final simply because they attacked extra-time as the one team determined to win it there and then. But penalty shoot-outs are rarely just. What they do occasionally provide, however, is an accurate snapshot. Spain falling short because of the lack of conviction of one of their front-men? It’s been coming. And if that sounds harsh on Alvaro Morata and his softly-softly penalty given his earlier equaliser, keep in mind that the only other Spanish player to miss during the shoot-out was Dani Olmo, the forward who was Spain’s central figure until Morata was brought on for the wasteful Mikel Oyarzabal. Really, this route to the exit door had been well-trodden.
Spain have had a decent tournament but no more than that. A stalemate against Sweden. A draw with Poland. Extra-time against Croatia. Penalties versus Switzerland. The overall picture was a mixed bag and something rather less than a convincing case to be considered deserved finalists. Their performance against Italy was their best of the tournament, but there’s a fine line between peaking at the right time and not doing enough.
What they need, of course, is a goalscorer. While Gerard Moreno and Morata endured tournaments to forget, Oyarzabal had a semi-final of nightmares. Had any of them fired, Spain may well have got over the line on Tuesday or built up an unstoppable head of steam earlier in the tournament. The one big positive for Luis Enrique is that with a goalscorer he has a team capable of beating anyone in world football. The one big concern is that he has less than 18 months to find that missing link before the next World Cup begins.
Morata’s night goes horribly wrong
He picks the ball up deep and drives at the Italy defence. A quick one-two is too good for Giorgio Chiellini, one of the great defenders of his generation, and he is away. In front of him stands the imposing figure of Gianluigi Donnarumma. No matter. The goalkeeper goes left and the Spain striker calmly slots it to his right. A stunning goal worthy of the semi-final.
Alvaro Morata. Even when he looks to have saved his side, the evening ends with close-ups on his face, a nation bemoaning his timid finishing. After hauling Spain level late on, his tame penalty kick, comfortably saved by Donnarumma ended their Euro 2020 ambitions.
Being dropped from the team by Luis Enrique was hardly the vote of confidence that Morata needed, the Spain boss not even opting for a natural striker as his replacement. But his impact off the bench did not suggest that he had been cowed by that decision.
Luis Enrique accentuated the positives afterwards.
“He has gone through some tough times during this competition but he was brilliant. He created a lot of uncertainty in the Italian ranks. He scored. He was excellent.”
Indeed, he played with a real sense of purpose and it would have been some story had his third goal of the tournament – having scored the winner in extra-time against Croatia, remember – been one that helped turn things around and taken Spain to the final.
Instead, the narrative reverts back to an all too familiar one. At 28, that sense that Morata is not quite good enough to seize the moment is likely to remain. For an hour at Wembley – his goal came at 9.37pm, his penalty miss at 10.39pm – another story had been within reach.
Pedri impresses even in defeat
In the aftermath of a defeat as difficult to take as this one, comfort in looking to the future cannot easily be found. The emptiness of the present and frustration at the immediate past is too all-consuming. But Luis Enrique still found time to praise his youngest player.
“No 18-year-old has done what Pedri has done in any big competition,” said the Spain boss in the wake of defeat. “His performances, the way he interpreted the game, picked up spaces, quality, personality, I have never seen anything like that. It is devoid of all logic.”
Last season was Pedri’s first in top-flight football and even though it was with Barcelona, occasions like this are new to him. It did not show. There was energy and enthusiasm as one would expect, but this was more than that. It was his maturity that made him stand out.
Pedri found a team-mate with 65 of his 67 passes, not easy when 43 of them were attempted inside the Italy half. These were probing passes too, teasing Italy and moving the midfielders around. It went on and on too. The teenager played the full 120 minutes.
He did not deserve to be on the beaten team but just as his performance offered his nation hope for the future, he can be boosted by the certainty that there will be other days for him. If Pedri does not spend the next 15 years at the top of the game, it would be a shock.
Italy will face either England or Denmark in the Euro 2020 final on Sunday at Wembley; kick-off 8pm.