The Italians came through their first serious test
It is a refreshing irony that perhaps the least starry Azzurri line-up in living memory should turn out to be its most reliably thrilling. Roberto Mancini has pieced together his Italy team not from Serie A’s traditional nobility, but from clubs unlikely to feature in any European Super League. Take Lorenzo “Il Magnifico” Insigne, Napoli born and bred, or Domenico Berardi, the pride of Sassuolo. Individually, you might not mark them down as the continent’s conquerors-in-waiting. But together, they bring an irresistible dynamism to give any opponents in this tournament twisted blood.
They took their time here, at first preening their feathers without much end product, but in the end they needed just 15 minutes of extra-time to tear apart their Austrian prey. Not content with creating a defence that had gone over 19 hours without conceding a goal, until Sasa Kalajdzic’s late consolation, Mancini has marshalled an attack that never knows when it is thwarted. The addition of Federico Chiesa, Juventus’ brilliant young winger, and Matteo Pessina, from humble Atalanta, was all it required, both players taking their goals with a patience and poise to suggest Italy are the side everyone else in this tournament should fear.
Once predictable in their patterns, the Italians now launch salvos from anywhere. Look at Ciro Immobile, casually left unmarked by Austria, but who still dug out a delicious strike to rattle the goal from 30 yards. The flourishes by Leonardo Spinazzola were perhaps most luminous of all. Nobody expresses the freedom of style encouraged by Mancini quite so vividly as this indefatigable left-back. At every turn, he was Italy’s creative linchpin, backing himself to launch himself attacks from deep, and to deliver the pass to set up Chiesa’s elegantly-worked breakthrough.
Spinazzola, a Roma stalwart, will soon have Jose Mourinho as his manager. It is to be hoped that these freewheeling instincts are retained. For when Italy are given this degree of licence to cast off the leash, there are few more invigorating spectacles. The one drawback is that such tactics can leave an absurd amount of space behind the back four.
Roberto Mancini celebrates Italy moving into the quarter-finals
Credit: GETTY IMAGES
It was a weakness from which Austria would soon learn to profit, not least when David Alaba headed across the box for Marko Arnautovic to eke out the unlikeliest of leads. Or so he thought. Such a plot twist was tantamount to Banquo’s ghost arriving at the feast: the player who had just served a one-match ban for aiming an unspeakable slur at a North Macedonian winger’s mother returning to gatecrash the party of the most easy-on-the-eye side in the competition.
Ultimately, it would not come to pass, Arnautovic revealing himself as fractionally offside on the Var replay. But it showed the price that could be paid by Italy throwing themselves up the pitch with heedless abandon. It was certainly a change of pace for Wembley, this first Euro 2020 match at the national stadium not involving ultra-cautious England. Mancini had set up Italy with a boldness that felt exhilaratingly reckless.
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It would be difficult to overstate just how radical a change of direction this represents. Tradition dictates that Italy are tentative at such a moment, given their failure to score more than two goals in any Euros game before this summer. Not content with defying that statistic twice in the opening week, Italy stuck fast here to the methods that have brought a 30-match unbeaten streak in the age of Mancini.
Since his appointment in 2018, Italy have set out a platform that they will not die wondering, that they will keep pouring forwards whatever the circumstances. In a captivating denouement, Chiesa and Pessina followed that philosophy to the letter. The team’s ecstatic huddle at the final whistle suggested there were more chapters in their story to be written.