How Italy Locked Defense Up To Advance To The EURO 2020 Final


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LONDON – Jorginho stood before the crowded ranks. Italy‘s fans straightened their backs and gasped. Each of them knew what was coming. Likewise, Spain’s goalkeeper Unai Simón stirred and trembled in his line with a tense energy.

There is an inevitability with Jorginho and penalties. He approaches the ball with a soft trot. Halfway through, he makes a small jump, a short stutter designed to entice the goalie to switch legs. That almost imperceptible move, that slight twitch, is all Jorginho needs. This is the point where he knows which side of the net will be out of reach for the goalie.

From there, it’s simple. It certainly looks that way, even under all the pressure of Tuesday. Euro 2020 semi final: after two hours of sweat, thunder and tension, one ball hit to send his team, his country, to the finals. Other than that it doesn’t hit. She is addressing him. He manages. He’s stroking her. Same every time. But just because you know something is coming doesn’t mean you can do anything about it.

Italy He hasn’t played the stereotype for the past three weeks. He came to Euro 2020 in an interesting position, in a streak stretching back several years without losing in 27 games, but not in the favourites. France, EnglandPortugal and Belgium were under much more pressure. Whatever happened, Italy’s coach Roberto Mancini promised it would be “fun”.

It was as good as his word, at least for those first raids. Turkey, Switzerland, and Wales, in the main lands in Rome, were imperious to the sidelines. Austria eventually lost in the round of 16. A great 15 or 20 minute spell passed Mancini’s team over Belgium, which was officially named the best team in the world. This was Italy, free from the stress of expectation and full of freedom.

But it was not the sense of adventure, the newly instilled and consciously nurtured spirit of the gioia di vivere, that allowed Italy to take the final step. Spain, even one iteration that remains a work in progress, always required the diplomatic demonstration of what might be called the more traditional Italian virtues: stubbornness and resilience, organization and cunning, gnashing teeth and tense muscles.

In Mancini’s three years in charge of the national team, it may be Mancini’s greatest achievement that he managed to preserve these qualities while reducing Italy’s dependence on them. Entering the fall of their careers, Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci still greet blocked shots and pickpockets with the same innocent, sheer delight they might have celebrated a well-planned offside trap as children.

Where Mancini triumphs is in making it a last resort option rather than Italy’s overall strategy. His team would usually prefer to beat his opponents. But if that’s not possible, then it would be more than happy to follow Johan Cruyff’s maxim and make sure it doesn’t lose them.

And so, while this wasn’t the kind of performance that the new Italy would have stirred the spirit with, it was a performance that the old Italy could rightfully be proud of. Despite possession of the ball, Spain was limited by only a few chances in the first half. While Luis Enrique’s team was chasing an equalizer for Federico Chiesa’s opening goal, they came more often in the second; Spain sometimes seemed to find holes so quickly that Chiellini and Bonucci could plug them.

The best measure of Italy’s performance, however, was perhaps the fact that the only goal achieved was lofty: a mercury or two between Alvaro Morata and live wire Dani Olmo, and a calm, unmistakable finish from Morata. Chiellini stood up with her hands on her hips, as if her own pride had been hurt. Then he dusted himself off and started to make sure it wouldn’t happen again.

Of course it didn’t, because Italy is still Italy, no matter how much it has changed under Mancini. His midfield, which was very fluid in the first five games of the tournament, went into a hectic and disturbing mode, trying to break the rhythm of Spain. Rafael Toloi stepped out of the bench as a backup troubleshooter and engaged in some sort of personal struggle to see how long he could last without a reservation.

And all the while, Chiellini in particular seemed to be having fun enjoying this little trip down memory lane. There were 60,000 people at Wembley Stadium, the vast majority of whom were biting their nails fast; There were 22 players on the field, all aware that the slightest slip could break anything they worked for, and Chiellini was smiling, laughing and making impromptu speeches to his goalkeeper.

Perhaps, to some extent, it was his playboy – a sign to Spain that no matter how much they grumble and blow, this was something he hadn’t seen before, that he hadn’t stepped out of his comfort zone yet, just one. This way it would never end. Just because you know what’s coming doesn’t mean you can do anything about it.

Then Italy endured, because it always will be, because underneath everything, no matter how much it has changed, Chiellini is still there and therefore still Italy. Chiellini had a wide grin on his face as Spain’s captain Jordi Alba flipped a coin to see which team would win the penalty shootout, and Italy won. Then another, to see what result they will lead: Italy wins again. At that, Chiellini hugged Alba tightly and burst into laughter. Italy had already won twice. He knew how this went.

Manuel Locatelli may have missed it, but then Olmo did too. And a few minutes later Morata himself stood up. Gianluigi took a low shot to Donnarumma’s left and the goalkeeper struggled to claw him away, putting a devastating end to a tumultuous tournament for a player who set the mood for Spain last month.

And so Jorginho began his long walk. He knew what to do. The supporters in front of him, hands clasped in prayer, knew what he was going to do. Simon knew what to do. It would send Italy to the EURO 2020 final. Just because you know what’s going to happen doesn’t mean you can do anything about it.


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