Wednesday, December 8

Italy suffers for victory in penalty shoot-out in authentic and emotional tournament fight | Euro 2020

That train is still running. On a gripping night under the gloom of the London skies in midsummer, it seemed for a moment that Roberto Mancini’s Italy might have reached a dead end.

At Wembley, Italy was dominated during the opening hour. Then they were dominated for the last half hour. They suffered, they ran and suffered a little more. It was, once again, exhausting and also uplifting, the controlled intensity of a team playing on the edge of their emotions.

And of course this semifinal went to penalties. This always went to penalties. As we progressed to overtime, as it turned into a game of lunges and twists, screaming muscles, raging lungs, this was going to turn into penalties. And somehow Italy, sometimes outmatched by an energetic and tactically intelligent Spain, was always winning them when we got there.

Even before the start, this looked and sounded like a true European tournament, down to the colors, the flags, the vicarious excitement of a great old rivalry. In the end, it had become the kind of game the best tournaments spin around, a meaty thing, with exciting layers, a fight to the last gasp.

But somehow Italy was always winning the penalty shootout, which is not a lottery or a matter of luck, but a record of skill, will and conviction. At 3-2, with Spain frayed a bit, there was even a funny moment when Jorginho stepped in to take what he could, could he, really? – be the decisive kick.

Lol, of course it was. Have you never seen him do this? So the game ended on an oddly light-hearted note, with the jump and the little push into the corner, and with the feeling that despite Spain’s dominance at times, what was always going to happen had happened.

The first part was a victory for Luis Enrique. Spain opted to start without an orthodox forward, with Dani Olmo and Mikel Oyarzabal on a false rotating nine. Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini looked upset, supreme defensive technicians, but at that stage of their careers where they seek human contact, the warm embrace. For a time, the form of Spain created an uncomfortable energy, the sensation of something sharp tickling the ribs of that defensive unit.

The rest of the first half was dominated by the duel between Sergio Busquets and Nicoló Barella, a duel that in itself was entirely dominated by Busquets.

It took 16 minutes to get somewhere near that lanky old driver. Busquets has faced that pressure. It is, let’s face it, the story of his career. Both teams here played at the time of Busquets.

Giorgio Chiellini and Sergio Busquets in conversation during a high-quality meeting.
Giorgio Chiellini and Sergio Busquets in conversation during a high-quality meeting. Photograph: Carl Recine / Reuters

With 50 minutes elapsed, Italy had taken only 35% of possession and made half the passes. Luis Enrique was winning this double in almost every metric. Or was it him?

It is difficult to understand in isolation what exactly is the special quality that Mancini brings to this group. He is not known as a high-level technocrat or a great orator. Then at times like these, you see him on the touchline and you think, okay, that’s it. There’s just something about the profile, that broad, flat, icy gaze.

Mancini is just one of the dukes of nature. It projects the feeling of something you didn’t know you had missed: Italianism, the reality of that old winning machine.

Mancini tweaked, but didn’t change much. And Italy produced its own razor edge. Let’s stop for a moment on Federico Chiesa’s goal, the highlight of the match. It came from a counterattack. The ball was channeled down the left. It didn’t feel like a full defensive alert. The movement was not quite in sync. Chiesa picked up the ball with two defenders between him and the goalkeeper.

It becomes a predator at times like these, just with a little space and a picture of where to go. It took four quick touches, like a special move on a vibrating plastic console. There were two quick changes in space, then, with no recoil, the perfect shot to the far corner.

As the Wembley net billowed, Chiesa was already drifting, the seats exploding like they do into a goal you can see emerging from the foot, feeling that prick in your ear, the rising excitement, the spike of joy as it blooms.

From there, Spain showed courage and no small ability to equalize through Álvaro Morata. Then came the penalties. And if it feels good that Italy should reach the final of these Euros. They have been a dose of adrenaline and, at times, a strangely moving show.

This has been football like passionate, in the musical sense: notes and combinations performed with extreme and relentless emotion. It’s not hard to see why this should be so refreshing. The shared experience of the past 18 months has at times felt like an imitation of real life. The rawness of Italy, the conviction of the players, their mutual pleasure feels like a reminder of other things. It will be a pleasure to spend another day in your company.

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