Seven performances that will be remembered from the Italy vs Spain epic at Wembley
By Sam Portillo
Before EURO 2020, Italy and Spain had already faced each other in five competitive fixtures in the last twenty years. La Roja’s golden generation thumped Italy 4-0 in the final of this very competition nine years ago. Antonio Conte’s Italy took revenge in 2016, knocking the reigning champions out on penalties at the last-16 stage.
Meeting at Wembley in a European semi-final, the two sides once again did battle with a place in the final up for grabs.
Despite Spain’s best performance of the tournament, Italy upheld their invincible reputation, resisting waves of red attackers for a 1-1 draw before a 4-2 victory in the penalty shootout. Here are seven players that rose to the occasion in a game that truly deserves the overused label of an ‘instant classic’.
Surprising some, Luis Enrique chose to start Dani Olmo as the central forward ahead of recognised strikers Morata and Moreno. The logic behind this choice seemed sound: strikers rarely win individual battles against veteran Italian defenders Chiellini and Bonnucci, so there was little point in trying.
Dropping deep to collect the ball and drawing a foul from Verratti in the first minute gave an indication as to the role the Leipzig man would play, as he constantly looked to fall into midfield to create a 4 vs 3 advantage against the Italian triumverate. He performed a number of clever turns throughout the night, playing well under pressure and combining well with his peers – most importantly setting up Morata for the equaliser with a telepathic one-two. Of all the players who stepped up for Spain, Olmo was perhaps the sharpest.
Replacing the injured Spinazzola, the out-of-favour Chelsea defender had big shoes to fill in his first knockout start of the tournament. Facing Jordi Alba in the fourth minute, the Brazilian-born full-back carressed a lovely ball around the Spanish defence into the path of Barella, who hit the post. It was subsequently called offside, but had the pass been played a split-second sooner, Italy probably would have opened the scoring.
Barely fifteen minutes later, it was Emerson’s turn to break free as he accelerated past Azpilicueta and squared the ball to Immobile, who should have pulled the trigger. For someone whose selection attracted the most scepticism before the game, Emerson looked Italy’s most dangerous outlet in the first half and did not look out of place even in a game of such quality.
Since missing Spain’s first two games of the tournament to COVID, Barcelona veteran Sergio Busquets has returned to the starting eleven in his usual role at the heart of midfield.
Still possessing a great ability to escape tight situations, La Roja’s captain was crucial in their attempts to bypass the Italian high press, using flicks, turns and first-time passes to find the midfielders or full-backs in space, and on many occassions, he was able to break the lines himself with an incisive through ball.
His swagger was epitomised in a single moment when he attempted to dink the 6’4″ Donnarumma with a first-time finish which saw the ball only narrowly float over the bar. Altogether, Spain looked a substantially more confident and composed side while he was on the pitch.
There is a reason why the young midfielder played the second-most minutes of any outfield player at Barcelona last season, and why he started all of Spain’s games at EURO 2020, and it’s not because of age. Quite simply, he is already a fantastic footballer.
Pedri completed 65 out of his 67 passes on the night – a statistic which is even more impressive when you consider that he consistently looked to play the ball forwards, a habit that resulted in a golden chance for Oyarzabal which should have seen Spain open the scoring.
His youth did nothing to stop him from rising to the occasion; if anything, he played with the fearlessness that one would expect from a teenager, except that almost everything he did was executed perfectly.
Every time that Italy counter-attacked, Chiesa showed great determination and drive to get in the right places. Not long after he managed a shot on target through Jordi Alba’s outstretched legs, the Italy goalkeeper started another counter attack, and when the ball fell loose, it was that man there again to pick it up on the corner of the penalty area and finesse a shot into the far corner.
It is often the case that in games as tight as these, the winner is not always the side with the territory or longer spells of possession, but the one who enjoys the raw moments of individual quality. He slipped Berardi in with a disguised pass soon after, and if not for a strong stop from Unai Simon, Italy would have had Chiesa to thank for a 2-0 lead.
Having prised the right-wing spot from Domenico Berardi, the Juventus man has likely secured his place in Mancini’s starting XI for the final with another good display.
Dubbed by some as the ‘best worst’ player in the world, Alvaro Morata’s tournament has revolved around the usual mix of wonderous hold-up play and wasteful chances. In part, this profligacy came to define Spain’s time at EURO 2020. The team vastly underperformed their 18xG, scoring ‘only’ thirteen across their six games – a statistic that was not helped by the fact that Morata missed six big chances.
Joining the game when his team were 1-0 down, though, and with less than 30 minutes to make a difference, he kept finding dangerous positions and desparately tried to make things happen on the ball. Driving at the Italian centre-backs, he drew Chiellini to take a step forwards and, exchanging the ball with Dani Olmo, continued his run into the space before a tidy left-foot finish down low.
Staring into the soul of the camera to celebrate, there was a feeling that the tame target-man had finally shaken off his demons. Perhaps he was the striker that Spain have been crying out for? But it seemed the script of the night had already been written, and when he stepped up to take Spain’s fourth penalty in the shootout, he looked as nervy as ever, and sure enough melted under the pressure.
The much-maligned midfielder has played all but 15 minutes of Italy’s campaign, even starting in the final group stage game against Wales where Mancini felt he was able to rest eight other starters. For the Azzurri’s high-pressing, territorial style of play, there are few individuals on the planet who can play the anchor role better.
People often question his defensive vulnerabilities, but flanked by the combative Verratti and Barella, and with the confidence to step out and engage, Jorginho has made the most ball recoveries and interceptions out of any midfielder at the tournament. Even though Italy spent half an hour of the second half and the entirety of extra-time defending deep, and finished the game with only 29 percent possession, the ball-loving regista put in a dogged performance and never stopped barking instructions at his team mates both on the ball and off it.
The polar opposite of Morata before him, whose shaky footrpints were freshly imprinted in the grass, Jorginho looked ice-cold stepping up to take the winning penalty… with a hop, skip and a jump, his cool finish sent Italy to the final.