Call it a scare. Call it a warning light on your dashboard. Call it a reminder not to believe your own hype. Call it an opportunity to assess what’s wrong and what needs fixing.
Call it football. Because, as the cliche goes, every game starts at 0-0, you get a chance to write your own story and what happened before is largely irrelevant. Unless, of course, you learn from your struggles. And Italy, despite winning 2-1 in extra time to advance past Austria, will have plenty to learn.
Austria came into their Wembley round of 16 game as underdogs after a group stage that saw them beat the team they were expected to in North Macedonia, lose to the team that was expected to beat them in Netherlands and beat the team that was, supposedly, close to their level, in a de facto playoff for second place against Ukraine. Largely “B-student” fare, meeting expectations with little to write home about.
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Yet they battled Italy to a stand-still until the fifth minute of extra time and, but for two close VAR calls (both correct, but in a VAR-less universe, who knows?), might even have had the better of them. How? By applying the lessons of Italy’s opponents in the group stage, only doing it better than them, with more intensity and more nuance. Whereas the likes of Turkey, Switzerland and Wales had conceded possession and defended deep, looking for counter-attacking opportunities that never came, Austria’s approach was somewhat different. They too set up deep at times, but, in possession, were clever to push up as a unit, keeping the ball (not a coincidence that Italy only edged possession 52 to 48 percent) and doing it with quality through the likes of Marcel Sabitzer, Christoph Baumgartner and, when he joined from a wide position, David Alaba.
The approach caught Roberto Mancini somewhat unprepared. In the third group stage game, with Italy already qualified, he had rested eight regulars, In this game he went with the same XI that looked so good in the two opening matches, with one exception: Marco Verratti, who hadn’t been fully fit at the start of the tournament, came on for Manuel Locatelli. Italy still created chances in the first half — Ciro Immobile hit the post, Leonardo Spinazzola had a couple dazzling runs followed by poor finishes, Nicolo’ Barella forced a good kick save from Daniel Bachmann — but Austria never looked fazed.
Adding another playmaker like Verratti alongside Jorginho might have made Italy more unpredictable, but instead ended up slowing the build-up play on too many occasions. Particularly, since Baumgartner, Sabitzer and, occasionally, Florian Grillitsch got in their grill and pressed them with an intensity the Swiss and Turks couldn’t manage earlier in the tournament. The front three — who, as a group, had an off-night — ended up getting the ball that little bit later, losing the half-step of space that sometimes is all the difference between a beaten man or an assist.
Mancini stuck to his guns at the break, making no changes and there was another scare at the start of the second half. A mistake by Leonardi Bonucci let Marko Arnautovic break free on goal. The well-traveled forward may be inconsistent, but when he’s on his game he’s as shock resistant as an invasive weed and as light on his toes as an Irish dancer. Francesco Acerbi did well to resist his array of feints and shimmies, reacting but not fully biting and never quite going away and it ended in with a scraping diagonal off the mark.
Shortly thereafter, Sabitzer’s shot had the stigmata of the own goal after being deflected by Bonucci, though it trickled just wide of the post. Then came an Arnautovic dinked header that eluded Gianluigi Donnarumma and finished in the goal, only to be disallowed after a VAR eternity for a tight offside. Despite having had more rest, Italy were running out of steam. Out went Verratti and Barella, on came Locatelli and Matteo Pessina. Still, the tide didn’t turn and, in fact, Pessina nearly gave away a penalty after pulling down Stefan Lainer: saved by VAR, again, since Lainer was apparently offside.
As the game went into extra-time, it was Austria who had all the confidence. Their game plan had been validated. Italy was facing some home truths. And the fact that, with a few minutes to go in the 90, they had beaten their 47 year old record for the longest run without conceding a goal wasn’t going to be much consolation, if they didn’t fix thing.
Mancini had turned to Andrea Belotti, aka “Il Gallo” or the “Rooster” and Federico Chiesa, the footballing blue blood, whose dad, Enrico is one of Italy’s all-time greats. They would prove to be critical changes.
“We could maybe have scored in the first half, but then we went flat physically, so if we won we owe it to the guys who came on,” Mancini said after the game. “They not only brought energy, they brought the right mentality and the right reading of the game.”
Five minutes into extra time a dangerous ball from Spinazzola, reliable and dangerous like in his previous starts, found Chiesa at the far post. He headed it down, controlled it with one foot and finished with the other, all in one quick, continuous motion. Afterwards, he said: “I’m proud of how I remained calm and focused on controlling the ball and then finishing. I had to fight the instinct of hitting it first time and rushing it.”
Unlike Italy teams of the past, they pushed on, knowing that, at 1-0, it’s better to try and score a second, than try and concede the equaliser. It’s a simple theorem backed by data — a bit like how NFL teams should go for it on fourth down more often than they actually do — but also one that runs counter to 100 years of footballing dogma, especially in Italy.
And it’s a credit to Mancini that he has managed to change that mentality. Sure enough, they made it two at the end of the first extra time period, with Pessina squeezing the ball past Bachmann after an insistent build-up. Austria didn’t relent. A vicious shot from substitute Louis Schaub forced an excellent save from Donnarumma and another sub, Sasa Kalajdzic, pulled one back when he snuck in at the near post, twisted his 6-foot-5 frame into the sort of position you’d expect to see from a contortionist at Cirque de Soleil and squeezed a header past Jorginho and Donnarumma from an improbable angle.
It ended up being a consolation goal and it was the least Austria deserved after an exceptional performance. For Italy, it was a reality check. As Acerbi put it after the game: “We got so much praise after the group stages, that unconsciously maybe it affected us. Confidence is important, but you need to get just the right amount.”
As for Mancini, the relief on his face was evident as he hugged his long-time friend and former teammate, Gianluca Vialli, now part of the Italian FA’s staff.
“We knew this was going to be tough and it really was,” he said. “Maybe, tougher still than what awaits us in the quarterfinal.”
He’ll know what’s lying in wait by Sunday night, after Portugal play Belgium. Whether the opponent will indeed be tougher may depend on what they learned about themselves against Austria at Wembley.