As the window of opportunity continues to close for Belgium’s golden generation, Italy’s young guns look ahead to a golden opportunity of their own after a 2-1 victory that seems them advance to face Spain in 2020 European Championship semifinals. Metaphorically, the long, warm embrace between Inter teammates Romelu Lukaku and Nicolo Barella seemed to signify just that.
Yet it’s also a slightly reductive reading. Because Italy’s victory was facilitated late in the second half by the guy who was old school before old school was even invented. Giorgio Chiellini, 37 years young in August, seemed to replicate at every Belgian attack late in the game, popping up with eerie punctuality: heading, booting and slicing the ball away at every opportunity. It wasn’t pretty, it was often ungainly, but the key concept is that every time the ball came within a 10 yard radius of him, it ended up further away from the Italian goal.
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Equally, while some of Belgium’s stars may be nearing the exit, there’s another who is elbowing his way to the front. Jeremy Doku is just 19, but, particularly after the break, tormented the Italian back line like some superhero mash-up of the Flash and Wolverine. And anyone who thinks the likes of Lukaku and Kevin De Bruyne are close to being done needs to think again.
For the Azzurri though, this win is the sort that offers both confidence and validation. After sailing through the group stage and beating Austria in extra time, the talk among some was that, for all their pretty football, they hand’t played any big boys yet. Leaving aside the fact that Italy laid a 3-0 spanking on Switzerland, who knocked out France and took Spain to penalties, there were no bigger boys left in the competition than Belgium.
“And we deserved to beat them,” Italy coach Roberto Mancini said after the match. “It was an open game, we went toe to toe and now we look ahead with confidence.”
The main question pregame surrounded Kevin De Bruyne’s fitness. He was forced off by injury early in the second half in the last round against Portugal and was still coping with a separate nerve ailment. Nevertheless, he was out there behind Romelu Lukaku and alongside the darting teenager Doku.
That trio represented a key part of Belgium’s game plan, not just in possession but in derailing the Azzurri’s build-up. Lukaku, Doku and De Bruyne lined up narrow, happy to let the central defenders have the ball, but helping to shield Italy’s playmakers, Jorginho and Marco Verratti. This forced Italy into wide areas, where they looked less comfortable in the opening half-hour.
Indeed, the two best chances before the 30 minute mark fell to Belgium. A vintage De Bruyne counter ended with a gorgeous finish neutralised by Gianluigi Donnarumma’s strong right hand. It was a reminder that few footballers today hit the ball as sweetly as De Bruyne does, even when carrying an injury. It was aslo, as Donnarumma himself would say later: “The biggest save of my career to date.”
Shortly thereafter, the Manchester City midfielder keyed another counter, opening play up for Lukaku, who took on Chiellini before forcing a solid save from Donnarumma. By that point though Italy had worked out how to get to the opposition half and stay there. They were pressing high and forcing Belgium into long balls for Lukaku, bypassing De Bruyne. Italy took the lead when Barella received the ball from Marco Verratti, held off Thorgan Hazard and suddenly scampered into space before hammering it home.
They might have had a second shortly thereafter, but Ciro Immobile took too long to attempt a shot after excellent work from Leonardo Spinazzola. Stuck between three opponents, the Lazio striker battled gamely, but often with limited results. There wasn’t much time to bemoan the missed opportunity, however, because the little man, Lorenzo Insigne, skipped past Youri Tielemans and stuck one of his patented curling finishes up where Thibaut Courtois was never going to soar.
“I knew Tielemans was on a yellow card, so I knew if I got past him he wouldn’t be stopping me with a foul,” Insigne said. “That gave me the space for the finish.”
Italy looked set to go into half-time two goals up, but Doku, who had done little until that point, had other ideas. He raced at Giovanni di Lorenzo, accelerated past him and went down as the defender’s elbow came out. Referee Slavko Vincic pointed to the spot and Lukaku slammed home the penalty. Martinez rubbed his temples on the sidelines. Mancini clasped his hands together.
Few thing are as deflating — or as energizing, depending which side you’re on — as a goal just before the half which reopens a game. Doku certainly was energised, because for much of the second half he was one of Belgium’s most consistent threats. On the opposite front, Italy went in furious, partly because they felt the penalty was harsh, partly because they weren’t able to see out the lead.
“Yeah, we were angry when we went in, very angry,” Donnarumma said. “But we pushed it out of our minds. We told ourselves we still had the lead and we could not let it affect us in the second half.”
Just after the hour mark, Doku seized upon a loose ball, terrorised the Italian defence, and slipped it to De Bruyne. His cross found Lukaku, whose finish was snuffed out by the recovering Spinazzola after a lung-bursting run. Spinazzola himself could have scored a third at the other end, shortly thereafter after a great ball from Insigne, but he rushed his finish.
With 20 minutes left, Martinez knew it was time to gamble. Nacer Chadli came on for Thomas Meunier — like for like — but Tielemans was replaced by Dries Mertens, meaning De Bruyne dropped deeper into midfield. Chadli was unlucky: his game only lasted a few minutes before an injury forced Martinez to send on Dennis Praet in his place.
Mancini’s reply was to take off Immobile, who had offered tons of work rate, but very little quality, and replace him with Andrea Belotti, while the more defensive Bryan Cristante came on for Verratti. Moments later, Spinazzola, arguably Italy’s best player at the Euros, went down clutching his left leg. It looked like the same injury that has dogged him off and on for the last few seasons. On came Emerson, as Spinazzola clutched his face, crying and sobbing, even as he was stretchered off. Athletes know their bodies. He looked like a man who knew his Euros were over with the exact nature of the injury still unclear.
Belgium were on the front foot, nobody more so than the super-charged Doku. A lightning quick run and finish sailed just over the crossbar. It felt like every time he received the ball, something might happen. Something not good for the Italians. The fact that by this stage the Azzurri had effectively stopped pressing and Axel Witsel had all day to spread balls from the middle of the park did not help.
Donnarumma described those final minutes as “interminable” and for Italy fans it did feel like that scene in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off when the clock moves backwards at the end of the school day. But the final whistle came and liberated them.
They had two goals pre-tournament. One was to reach the semifinal. The other was to show they could play modern, attacking football and do it well. Check and check. Now, they’re playing with house money.
So why not set a new goal? Win it all.