Chiellini and friends celebrate reaching the final


We have been quick to anoint best games of this European Championship.

There was the 4-2 group stage thrill-fest of Germany vs Portugal, when it briefly looked like Germany were the favourites. Whatever happened to them? 

There was the night of a million goals, France crashing out, Spain recovering from the mother of all goalkeeping howlers to swat aside Croatia. 

That was undoubtedly one of the best football-watching evenings of our lives, but you had to take the two games as a piece. 

But for the chin-stroking analytical fan, Tuesday night’s draw and then penalty shootout between Italy and Spain was the clear winner. Here’s why.

The stakes 

A European Championship semi-final is the Platonic ideal of a football match, the connoisseur’s choice of premium sporting brilliance.

Semi-finals are generally better than finals. The Euros are generally better than the World Cup. The two teams involved were international football heavyweights. And the winners had the honour of returning to Wembley to face England on Sunday. 

(Or Denmark. I keep forgetting about Denmark. This definitely won’t come back to haunt me.)

A clash of styles

Italy’s deadly counter-attacking seemed to have met its match in Spain’s sparkling passing. Both were equally enjoyable to watch –  Spain working angles, finding space, inevitably fluffing their lines when they reached the penalty area, Italian defenders celebrating tackles and clearances like the end of a particularly awful war.

Sam Dean has a more sophisticated explanation of Italy’s approach here.

It wasn’t just the football at odds, in the crucial arena of manager’s touchline styles you had Roberto Mancini at one extreme:


…and Luis Enrique at the other:

Credit: PA

Once again, another Telegraph Sport Sam has the definitive analysis:

Luis Enrique look tonight: popular science teacher, albeit with unconventional methods
Roberto Mancini look tonight: school’s newly-appointed super-head (strong track record), who distrusts unconventional science teachers

— Sam Wallace (@SamWallaceTel) July 6, 2021

Pedri’s almost perfect game 

An absurd match for the impressive 18-year-old Barcelona midfielder, who completed all 52 of the passes he attempted in regulation time.

Pedri’s pass map for #ESP vs #ITA

55/55! 👀 What a talent! #EURO2020

— Chris Smith ⚽✍️ (@CJSmith91) July 6, 2021

It wasn’t until the 100th minute that he actually gave the ball away. All hail our new tiki taka overlord!

Chiellini loving every moment 

Football’s favourite Easter Island statue had a wonderful night, starting with the now-familiar sight of his pose as the peerless Italian national anthem begins, eyes closed in delight like a particularly smug cat.

He gives the impression of a man who did not expect to still be appearing at tournaments like this and is therefore making every moment count. He was able to show off his physical brand of defending:


Enjoy a mid-game chat with fellow old head Sergio Busquets:


And have the best time anyone has ever had at a penalty coin-toss, finding Jordi Alba’s confusion about which end they would be taking place absolutely hilarious:


..then just ‘playfully’ punching him in the face


You can’t object if it’s just some friendly rough-housing. Galaxy brain-level mindgames.

Several different spells of dominance 

Spain seemed to have worked Italy out in the first half, bypassing their press, keeping the ball for exhaustingly long periods and wearing out a team that had seemed indefatigable. Italy tweaked their system at the break and re-found their counter-attacking mojo. The game swung again when Spain equalised, with Italy seemingly hanging on from penalties from that moment and the entirety of extra time. A great match needs momentum, and this game’s was shifting more than a keyboard without a caps lock.

Federico Chiesa’s lovely goal 

Credit: AFP

A superb Italian counter-attack, Italy went from goalkeeper to goal in three passes, via one Spanish tackle which fell at Chiesa’s feet. Chiesa worked it onto his right without fuss and curled it beautifully into the corner. Unai Simon, in goal for Spain, was rooted.

The Morata narrative 


Alvaro Morata has an unfair reputation in this country after two disappointing seasons at Chelsea. Much like Diego Forlan, it has taken an international tournament to revive his standing. 

He came off the bench and changed the game for Spain, taking his equaliser with aplomb, somehow sending Gianluigi Donnarumma the wrong way despite only being about 10 yards from him. 

He then seemed the most likely to settle it in extra time, running with enthusiasm where others were tiring. Later he would take the decisive penalty. Perhaps there was a clue about how that would turn out in his body language?


The crowd


Wembley had what felt like a proper crowd in at last. It really cannot be said enough: shouting people are much better at making football fun than empty seats.

Italy’s supporting cast

It’s not just Mancini stirring memories of sick days spent bingeing on Premier League Years, but assistant manager Gianluca Vialli:


and the tournament’s most dapper man Alberico Evani:


…who used to look like this:

Alberico Evani btw. Former Milan midfielder and certified hot stuff in his day

— Who Ate All The Pies (@waatpies) July 2, 2021

The return of the little car

Credit: AFP

Because now we’ve seen it we cannot go back. All top-level football matches must begin with a remote-control German vehicle bringing the ball out onto the pitch before scuttling back to its little garage.

Danny Murphy trying to pronounce ‘Oyarzabal’

Because a match needs some light relief too.

A penalty shootout that wasn’t just excellence all the way 


Switzerland vs France, impeccable until Kylian Mbappe, brought back bad memories of the interminable shoot-out which decided the Europa League final. It seemed as if footballers had perfected the penalty, and where’s the fun of penalties if they’re all put away with terrifying precision? 

A quick reminder at the start of this shoot-out that penalties can still embarrass their taker when Manuel Locatelli then Dani Olmo both missed. The next five were scored then redeemed Morata inevitably un-redeemed himself, Jorginho did his Jordinho trick and Italy are off to the final. 

Good and tired, as England would want them. 

Or Denmark! Sorry Denmark. Please don’t haunt me.