As the window of opportunity continues to close for Belgiumthe golden generation, Italythe young guns expect a golden opportunity after a 2-1 win that sees them advance to face Spain in the semifinals of the 2020 European Championship. Metaphorically, the long and warm embrace between the Inter teammates Romelu Lukaku and Nicolo Barella seemed to mean exactly that.
But it is also a somewhat reductive reading. Because Italy’s victory was made easier at the end of the second half by the guy who was old school even before the old school was invented. Giorgio Chiellini, a 37-year-old in August, seemed to respond to every Belgian attack late in the game, appearing with ominous punctuality: directing, baiting and cutting the ball at every opportunity. It wasn’t pretty, it was often unsightly, but the key concept is that every time the ball came within 10 yards of it it ended up further from the Italian goal.
Likewise, as some of the Belgian stars approach the exit, there is another one making its way forward. Jeremy Doku is only 19 but, especially after the break, has plagued the Italian backline as a mix of Flash and Wolverine superheroes. And all those who think like Lukaku and Kevin De Bruyne are about to be completed, it needs to be rethought.
For the Azzurri however, this victory is one that offers both confidence and validation. After going through the group stage and beating Austria in overtime, some said that, despite all their good football, they had not yet played big boys. Leaving aside the fact that Italy spanked 3-0 to Switzerland, who knocked out France and took Spain on penalties, there were no bigger boys in the competition than Belgium.
“And we deserved to beat them,” Italy coach Roberto Mancini said after the game. “It was an open game, we faced each other and now we look to the future with confidence.”
The main pre-match question was about Kevin De Bruyne’s fitness. He was forced by an injury early in the second half of the final round against Portugal and still suffered from a separate nervous illness. Nonetheless, he was there behind Romelu Lukaku and alongside the fiery teenager Doku.
This trio represented a key part of Belgium’s game plan, not only in possession but in derailing the from Azzurri accumulate. Lukaku, Doku and De Bruyne lined up tight, happy to let the ball go to center-backs, but helping to protect the Italian playmakers, Jorginho and Marco Verratti. This forced Italy into wide areas, where they seemed less comfortable in the first half hour.
Indeed, the two best chances before the 30-minute mark fell to Belgium. A vintage De Bruyne counter finished with a magnificent finish neutralized by Gianluigi Donnarummais the strong right hand. It was a reminder that few footballers today kick the ball as softly as De Bruyne, even when injured. It was also, as Donnarumma himself would later say: “The biggest stop of my career to date.”
Shortly after, the Manchester city the midfielder tapped another counter, opening the game for Lukaku, who faced Chiellini before forcing a solid save from Donnarumma. At this point, Italy had figured out how to reach the opposing half of the field and stay there. They were pressing high and forcing Belgium to throw long balls for Lukaku, bypassing De Bruyne. Italy took the lead when Barella received the ball from retained Marco Verratti Thorn danger and suddenly scampered off into space before hammering him home.
They might have had a second soon after, but Ciro Immobile took too long to attempt a shot after a great job of Leonardo of Spinazzola. Stuck between three adversaries, the Lazio the attacker fought fiercely, but often with limited results. There was not much time to mourn the missed opportunity, however, because the little man, Lorenzo Insigne, ignored Yuri Tielemans and glued one of its patented curling finishes where Thibaut Courtois was never going to skyrocket.
“I knew Tielemans was on a yellow card so I knew if I got past him he wouldn’t stop me with a foul,” said Insigne. “It gave me space for finishing.”
Italy looked set to reach half-time with a two-goal lead, but Doku, who hadn’t done much so far, had other ideas. He ran to Giovanni di Lorenzo, accelerated in front of him and fell as the defender’s elbow came out. Referee Slavko Vincic scored the point and Lukaku slammed the penalty. Martinez rubbed his temples on the sidelines. Mancini put his hands together.
Few things are as deflating – or as energizing, depending on which side you’re on – than a goal right before half-time that reopens a game. Doku was certainly energized, as for much of the second half he was one of Belgium’s most constant threats. On the other side, Italy got angry, partly because they felt the penalty was severe, partly because they couldn’t see the head.
“Yes, we were angry when we walked in, very angry,” Donnarumma said. “But we pushed him out of our minds. We figured we still had the advantage and we couldn’t let it affect us in the second half.”
Just after the hour mark, Doku grabs a free ball, terrorizes the Italian defense and slips it to De Bruyne. His center found Lukaku, whose arrival was choked by Spinazzola’s recovery from a stroke that blew his lungs out. Spinazzola himself could have scored a third at the other end, shortly after a superb Insigne ball, but he rushed his arrival.
With 20 minutes to go, Martinez knew it was time to play. Born Chadli came for Thomas Meunier – same for the same – but Tielemans has been replaced by Dry Mertens, which means De Bruyne fell deeper in midfield. Chadli was unlucky. His game only lasted a few minutes before injury forced Martinez to send Dennis praet in its place.
Mancini’s response was to remove Immobile, which had offered tons of work rate, but very little quality, and replace it with Andrea Belotti, while the most defensive Bryan Cristante came for Verratti. Moments later, Spinazzola, arguably the best Italian player at the Euro, fell, squeezing his left leg. It looked like the same injury that has plagued him for the past few seasons. On came Emerson, as Spinazzola hugged his face, weeping and sobbing, even as he was lying on a stretcher. Athletes know their bodies. He looked like a man who knew his euros were up, the exact nature of the injury still unclear.
Belgium took center stage, nobody more than the supercharged Doku. A lightning fast race and finish came just over the crossbar. I felt like every time he received the ball something could happen. Something not good for Italians. The fact that at this stage the Azzurri had effectively stopped pressing and Axel witsel had all day to spread balls from the middle of the park didn’t help.
Donnarumma described the last few minutes as “endless” and to Italian fans it sounded like that scene from “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” when the clock rolls back at the end of the school day. But the final whistle came and set them free.
They had two goals before the tournament. One was to reach the semi-final. The other was to show that they could play modern, attacking football and do it well. Check and verify. Now they are playing with money from the house.
So why not set a new goal? Win it all.