Spanish Hearts Broken as Italy Moves Onby Prime Time Sports Talk July 9, 2021 0 comments
On one hand, it seemed a shame that such a high-quality, entertaining semi-final should come down to penalty kicks. Yet, on the other hand, it was the most fitting conclusion. For 120 minutes, Spain had shut Italy down in a way that few thought was possible, leaving the slick-passing Italians to feed off scraps, as Luis Enrique’s side dominated possession throughout the match, sparking memories of the great Spain sides of old.
How it Went Down
Still, nothing could separate the two teams. Federico Chiesa’s breakaway goal had given Italy the lead before Álvaro Morata answered his critics by finishing off a sumptuous Spanish move. And so, on a humid and blustery night at Wembley, penalties loomed.
Manuel Locatelli and Dani Olmo missed the first two spot-kicks of the shootout. From there it was a case of who would blink next. Morata never quite looked confident as he stepped up, having missed one in-game against Slovakia earlier in the tournament. His tame effort was palmed away by Gianluigi Donnarumma.
From there, it was all down to Jorginho, the Chelsea defensive midfielder who has made cool, calm penalty-taking his forte at Stamford Bridge. There was to be no mistake — no mercy — and Italy had weathered the storm to emerge into the glorious light of another major final.
With Italy having played like supercharged footballing machines throughout most of the tournament, this was a match where they were forced to revert to a more traditional Italian style of play. Enrique produced a tactical masterclass, leaving both Morata and Gerard Moreno on the bench in favor of a striker-less system, which allowed Spain to find joy in the gaps between Italy’s defense and midfield.
Much had been made of the midfield battle in the build-up to the match, but it was Spain’s trio of Sergio Busquets, Koke, and Pedri who dominated from start to finish, setting the tone for La Roja’s best performance of the entire tournament. The fact that they could not fashion more clear-cut goalscoring opportunities speaks to the lack of individual quality within the ranks — the one key difference between this side and the team that won three successive tournaments between 2008 and 2012.
For Italy, there was only one option — to defend — but that is something they take pleasure in. There is an art to defending in Italy that simply doesn’t exist in most other footballing nations. To look at center-halves Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini against Spain was to see two defenders enduring the toughest test of their lives but enjoying every single minute of it.
Captain Chiellini was laughing heartily in the build-up to the penalties. Perhaps he was relieved that his team had survived the extra-time period with their backs against the wall. Maybe he was simply confident in the knowledge that having held Spain at bay, there could only be one winner in the shootout.
Spain ran out of luck in the end. Morata, who has cut a divisive figure throughout the tournament, was left to count the cost. But they can hold their heads high, having defied the Euro 2020 odds on more than one occasion. Few expected them to come so far, especially after a pre-tournament covid outbreak threatened their entire campaign. It wasn’t meant to be, but there are positive signs ahead of Qatar.
Meanwhile, Italy marches on inexorably towards glory. Has there ever been a team that looked so assured of their strengths? They will walk out for the final on Sunday, belt out the national anthem with special fervor, and it’s hard to see how anyone will be able to stop them once that whistle blows. Spain produced the performance of their lives in the semi-final, and it still wasn’t enough. Bring on the next challenger.
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