Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci of Italy celebrate after victory
Credit: Sebastian Widmann – UEFA
No defender likes to play against speed and stealth and, the older you get, those feelings only tend to harden but it quickly became apparent that this high octane quarter-final was never going to unfold at anything but a relentless, breakneck pace.
Great news for the rich array of vibrant attackers on show, less so for dad’s army at the back, venerable professionals all but hardly centre-backs in the flower of their youth.
Between them, the Italian pairing of Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci and Belgian trio of Thomas Vermaelen, Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld had an average age of 34 and an average of 109 caps each.
Roberto Martinez, the Belgium coach, has rejected the notion that an ageing defence represents his side’s Achilles heel and he basked in the warm afterglow of a stout rearguard action in the previous round against Portugal, when 35-year-old Vermaelen and company impressed en route to a 1-0 win.
Bonucci and Chiellini, both coming off the back of mediocre seasons for Juventus, had not really been overly tested before Austria gave Italy a fright in the last 16 but Romelu Lukaku and Kevin De Bruyne, a welcome inclusion after an injury scare, presented a new level of threat. So, in many ways, it felt like a case of whose ageing bodies and aching joints would best withstand all that twisting and turning and backpedalling, which veteran defence would commit the fewest mistakes in the face of such vigour and verve going forward.
The answer, after a blistering 90 minutes, was Italy. In truth, it was a valiant effort from all – Chiellini, in particular, who perhaps enjoyed the final 15 minutes more than anyone when the hitherto adventurous Italians went all catenaccio – but also inevitable that, at certain moments, someone would creak under the pressure.
Leonardo Bonucci struggled to get to grips with Romelu Lukaku all night
Credit: MATTHIAS HANGST
Initially, it looked like the Italians were going to come off worse. The panic showed in Bonucci’s face when De Bruyne feinted right but went left, selling the Juventus defender the dummy, before forcing an excellent save. And Chiellini’s blood was starting to twist a few minutes later when Lukaku bore down on goal and again forced Gianluigi Donnarumma into action.
Unfortunately for Belgium, it was Vertonghen who was the first to err. He tried to play his way out of trouble in his own penalty area but was closed down quickly. Marco Verratti intercepted and slipped the ball to the snake-hipped Nicolo Barella. Thorgan Hazard was petrified of tripping the Inter midfielder and Vermaelen unable to get across quickly enough to cut off the angle for the shot. A decade ago he might have. Not now.
And perhaps a younger Alderweireld – at 32, a relative pup compared to the other centre halves here – would have shot out to pressure Lorenzo Insigne but the Tottenham defender paid a heavy price for backing off and backing off and watched as the Italy forward pinged a peach into the top corner.
What an uncompromising environment it was. Perhaps only Lukaku will know how he missed a glorious chance to equalise in the second half after De Bruyne ran in behind Bonucci to receive Jeremy Doku’s pass and cross for the Inter Milan striker. Leonardo Spinazzola got enough of his body in the way of the ball. Cue familiar high fives from Italy’s defenders. Nacer Chadli later sped past Chiellini with ease in the lead up to another Belgium chance. But an equaliser was always going to be a tough ask once the Italians started to park that bus and Chiellini, revelling in the additional numbers around him, was suddenly at his most comfortable.