Euro 2020(1): Semi-Finals – The Eternal Struggle
Could it ever have been any other way? Italy and Spain played out a tournament semi-final for the ages last night, a match that transcended the mere matter of being a football match and became something else altogether, in that very special way that only international tournament football only really can. It was a match that neither team deserved to lose, that sucked the neutral in, and which ended with tears and celebrations which could only provoke the thought that these matches strike players in the heart in a way that club football really cannot achieve.
Through 120 minutes of passionate, engaging, highly skilled football, Spain created more chances, but they failed to take them. Except for that time when they did take one. With ten minutes to play of the original ninety and Italy leading one to nil, Alvaro Morata, the Juventus forward around whom coach Luis Enrique had publicly stated he was going build his team but who had been left out of the starting eleven for this match, rolled the ball past Donnarumma to bring Spain level, cancelling out Federico Chiesa’s delightful finish for Italy, twenty minutes earlier.
Here, perhaps, was the evening’s story, a redemption song for a player widely mocked throughout the tournament but whose fine goal against Croatia had proved to be pivotal in winning Spain that match. Italy’s defence had been hanging on by the skin of its teeth for much of the previous eighty minutes, but this match proved to be more layered than one simple plot line could account for, and in the end, while Morata did prove to be pivot upon which the match came to rest, it wasn’t in the way that Spain would ever have hoped.
The statistics didn’t speak for themselves. Spain enjoyed a shade more than two-thirds of the possession and created more chances than Italy, and if there’s one lesson that they need to take from a match like this, it’s that no team can afford to squander as many chances as they did and still hope to win such a match. Italy broadly soaked up most of the pressure that Spain could throw at them, but there were small causes for optimism for the winners of tonight’s other semi-final that, despite their lengthy unbeaten run under Roberto Mancini, this team could be beatable.
When the shoot-out came at the end of the match, it started disastrously for Italy, with Locatelli’s shot being comfortably saved by Donnarumma. Spain’s advantage, however, lasted for precisely one penalty kick. Olmo’s kick – Spain’s first – sailed over the goal to ensure that parity was retained as the standard of spot kick started to improve.
Penalties are most definitely not a lottery, and Spain’s fatal error came with their choice of penalty takers. With the score at 3-2 to Italy, Morata stepped up again. Sure enough, he’d scored against Croatia. Sure enough, he’d scored against Italy. But, as he ambled to the penalty spot to take his kick, he had the distinct look of the dead man walking, and sure enough his tame kick was comfortably saved by Donnarumma. With a skip of the step and a glance in the right direction, Jorginho baffled Simon into diving too early and in the wrong direction, rolling the ball along the ground with insouciance to send Italy through to the final.
There has been some talk of late that Italy are trying to move to a model of playing that doesn’t involve tactics, and it’s easy to see how this might work. The current Italian team run on being something between perpetual motion and perpetual emotion. When Chiellini grabbed Alba into a bear hug that the latter most definitely want, as the captains tossed the coin to toss the coin for the spot kicks, the former’s laughter was not doing a particularly good job of masking yet another display of Italian gamesmanship. This looked like a power play, pure and simple, and it’s easy to see how their reaction to the winning kick was another one, this time for the benefit of whoever they end up playing on Sunday.
More than anything else, though, the reaction that the match elicited once it was over was one of gratitude. This had been a magnificent, exhausting evening of football, featuring two teams both completely on top of their games. Neither team truly deserved to ‘lose’ this match, and if it had to end in defeat for one of them, it was wholly inappropriate that it should have ended in the way in which it did. Heartbreaking for Morata, of course, but necessary nevertheless. We were, as viewers, fortunate to bear witness to such intensity, to a match which pulsated from start to finish, which was so absorbing that it was difficult to look away.
Italy will likely start the final as favourites to win, if nothing else on the basis of their performance throughout the tournament in general. They were not the better team on the night, and Spain will doubtless feel considerable disappointment at the fact that they didn’t take chances when they fell to them. Italy have, however, quite clearly been one of the best three teams in this tournament so far – the other two meet at Wembley tonight – and thoroughly deserve their place in the final for this reason.
As we reach the final stages of an outstanding tournament, it would be easy to say that “football is the winner”. Football might well not be able to ‘win’ anything, but watching viewers most definitely can, and it felt like a privilege to watch a match of this brilliance and intensity. International tournaments hit a level of meaning that the club game can never truly match. There is something about the scarcity of these tournaments that gives matches at ‘epic’ feel, and playing in them seems to confer a different set of emotions to the players involved. Everybody on the pitch last night was giving it their all, and they were doing so for reasons that aren’t as prosaic as those which motivate them for club matches. We were all very lucky indeed to be able to bear witness to it.