Euro 2020(1): Day Nine – An Italian Renaissance
There is a striking irony at the eart of European football. For all the caterwauling of the giant clubs who attempted cave up European club game for their own benefit, the position of those clubs at the top of the European club game changed radically with the announcement of the attempted coup, a couple of months ago. A lot of people, it seems, have started to question why things are the way the are, how they got to be this way, and whether they need to always be this way, and such questions are seldom to the benefit of the current beneficiaries of existing hegemonies.
At the top of the list of perversities that opening that particular pandora’s box entailed, the most pervasively stupid was that these elite football clubs somehow needed or deserved an even greater slice of a pie that already has their names stamped all over it. The biggest clubs, bloated and corrupted by their own self-importance and hubris, could never be satisfied with what they have. And at the top of the league of the entitled were Juventus, Internazionale and Milan. Juventus, a club who have become as synonymous with periodic match-fixing allegations in Italy. Internazionale, a club whose financial basketcasery has become the stuff of legend. Milan, the supposed “giants” who have won just two league titles in the last 22 years.
These three clubs, with their nationwide support and global aspirations, dominate the language of football in Italy, but they can never represent the whole country. That job can only fall to the national football team, but things haven’t been going brilliantly on that front, either, with just the one trophy – the 2006 World Cup – to show for the last four decades, and when that team failed to even reach the finals of the 2018 World Cup, it was clear that whatever money and riches the biggest clubs sides were raking in, there was no reflection in the fortunes of the national team. After the nightmare of non-qualification, the fixtures and fittings were ripped out, and a manager was installed to try and get the Azzurri back to their previous pedestal in international football.
The results of this, of course, have been startling. Italy qualified for Euro 2020 with a 100% record, and have now gone thirty games unbeaten under him. True enough, their opposition throughout most of these games has been from European football’s middle-to-lower orders, but if the aim of the last three years has been to rebuild the confidence and swagger of the Italian national football team, then it can be pretty much agreed that the mission has been accomplished. They breezed through their first two group matches against Turkey and Switzerland without even really having to pause to catch their breath, and by the time Wales landed in Rome yesterday, they were already safely through to the second round of the competition regardless of what happened last night.
All of which was probably something of a relief for Wales, who were seeking to continue their 100% record in qualifying through the group stages of major tournaments. Switzerland would have to overturn five goals in goal difference to claim second place in the group. If Wales could hang on doggedly enough, qualification in second place in the group was attainable, and pre-match news that Roberto Mancini was making eight changes from the team that brushed Switzerland aside in their last match was probably cheering.
It turned out to be an evening of tension over quality. Italy were calm, composed, and in control throughout. They pressed relentlessly, seldom allowing Wales players any time on the ball, and when they moved into attacking position there was immediate danger. Ten minutes from half-time, they passed the record of having gone 1,000 minutes since they lasted conceded a goal. Three minutes later they scored one of their own, a beautifully crafted free-kick on the right curled in by curled in by Marco Verratti and flicked in by Matteo Pessina, with goalkeeper Danny Ward having been drawn towards his near post.
The tension levels didn’t really apply to Italy, but they rose nevertheless. Switzerland were two goals up on the now rapidly imploding Turkey in Baku. By half-time, the buffer that Wales had enjoyed had shrunk to just two goals. If they conceded another and Switzerland scored again, they’d be down to third place in the group and facing the possibility of dropping into third place in the group. Only two third teams are missing out on a place in the next round and it was unlikely that a team with four points would end up missing out, but it take control of it all out of their hands.
Nine minutes into the second half, tensions increased another notch when Ethan Ampadu went in for a clumsy tackle on Federico Bernardeschi and earned himself a red card for his troubles. It was the sort of tackle that fell somewhere between being a yellow card and a red card, but the Roboref checked and it and confirmed it, and there was little that Wales could do apart from shuffle to play four at the back and hope for the best. Any nerves that they may have had eased with the improbable news from Baku that Turkey had pulled a goal back, but when Switzerland regained their two goal advantage we were all back to where we’d been at half-time.
It’s not impossible, though, that the law of unintended consequences benefitted Wales with Ampadu’s dismissal, though. Italy seemed to take their foot off the gas a little with the sending off. A win was as much as they were interested in, and there was little point in rocking the boat too hard in order to extend their lead. Andrea Belotti found himself thwarted by Danny Ward and Bernardeschi thumped a free-kick against the base of the post, but Wales also bit back. Chris Gunter flashed a header just over, and with fifteen minutes to go Gareth Bale missed a golden opportunity, blazing the ball over the crossbar on the volley from eight yards when unmarked. Bale has this tendency. He’s failed to score in his last fourteen games for Wales and missed a penalty against Turkey. He remains, however, their most potent source of goalscoring opportunity for others, and their obvious leader on the pitch. He isn’t going anywhere, for them.
Switzerland couldn’t find another goal, and Italy didn’t seem overly fussed to try. Although tensions remained high, the clock ticked down relatively comfortably for Wales. They qualify in second place in the group and will now travel to Amsterdam in the next round to play the runners-up from Group B, which is almost certainly going to be Russia, Finland or Denmark, who play later today. Switzerland, meanwhile, will have to sweat on the performances of others if they are to snatch one of the four places for third placed teams. Considering the tumult behind the scenes this year, with the sudden and unexpected departure of Ryan Giggs, though, it’s a not-inconsiderable achievement for them to have gotten this far again.
Italy, meanwhile, will travel to London to play Ukraine or Austria in the second round. There remain questions about this team that cannot be answered until the latter stages of the competition, of which the most important is what happens when they have to play against stronger teams than those that they’ve faced since Roberto Mancini took charge of the team more than three years ago. And while yes, they made a lot of changes to their team yesterday and yes, they were an already qualified team yesterday playing a team who were scrapping for a place in the next round, they were pushed considerably harder by Wales than they were in either of their two previous matches.
It certainly seems unlikely that they’ll receive as little of a challenge as they did against Turkey and Switzerland, and how far they can go in this tournament depends entirely on how they respond to these growing challenges. Wales might have nicked a point off them. Things are unlikely to get easier than they have been for them, so far, but at the end of a season when the behaviour of their biggest clubs – along with those of other countries, England being no exception to this – have embarrassed themselves in their shamelessly naked attempted power grab, there is a certain irony to the possibility that restoring a little real pride to Italian football is falling upon the national team, an institution which Juventus, Inter and Milan would fire from a cannon into the sun if they possibly thought they could get away with it.