Italy reached the final of Euro 2020 after edging past Spain in a dramatic penalty shootout on Tuesday.
Federico Chiesa’s wonderful curled effort had given Italy the lead on the hour mark, before substitute Alvaro Morata finished off a fine passing move to draw Spain level with just 10 minutes of regulation time to go.
With neither side able to find the winning goal in extra-time, the tie went to penalties with Jorginho scoring the decisive penalty kick after Morata’s miss to send Italy through to its first major international final since Euro 2012.
Head coach Roberto Mancini has presided over a remarkable turnaround for Italy, which failed to even qualify for the World Cup in 2018.
Italy got Euro 2020 underway on June 11 with a 3-0 win over Turkey and has emerged as a surprise contender to lift the Henri Delaunay Trophy after some impressive performances — this current crop of players is now just one match away from winning only the country’s second European Championship and its first since 1968.
Whichever team it faces in Sunday’s final — either England and Demark, who face off on Wednesday — few will be betting against the Italians.
Under Mancini, once again resplendent in his suave Armani suit, Italy has strayed considerably from the organized and gritty defensive style that has come to define the Azzurri over the years.
Certainly some of those elements still remain, most notably in the leadership of veteran central defensive pair Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini, but Euro 2020 has seen Italy adopt a more fluid and aggressive attacking style.
Unfortunately, one of the key components to the team’s success so far, Leonardo Spinazzola, will be sidelined for several months after suffering an Achilles injury in the quarterfinal win over Belgium.
Conversely, Spain began the tournament in relatively turgid fashion, managing to only draw against both Sweden and Poland. While Luis Enrique’s side certainly dominated those matches, its profligacy in front of goal meant their incessant possession-based football lacked a cutting edge.
That all changed in the third group stage game against Slovakia, where an incredible own goal from goalkeeper Martin Dubravka opened the floodgates and Spain went on to score 10 goals across just two matches.
Tuesday’s semifinal between the two sides was the first time Wembley had been able to host as many as 60,000 fans — up from 45,000 in previous knockout rounds — as the UK government had allowed an increased capacity ahead of restrictions being lifted.
It had been well over a year since a stadium in the UK had held a crowd of this size and the two sets of supporters were audibly relishing the opportunity to support their teams in their droves.
Had you closed your eyes for 90 seconds during the Italian national anthem, you would have been forgiven for thinking you were back in Rome’s Stadio Olimpico, where Italy had played its three group stage matches.
And while Spain’s wordless national anthem didn’t quite bring the same level of noise from the sea of red shirts at the opposite end of the stadium, their supporters were unquestionably the louder of the two once the match had kicked off.
When some England fans — sat in Wembley’s upper bowl — started singing “It’s Coming Home,” the Spanish and Italian supporters united in boos to very promptly drown them out.
Once Italy had begun to get a foothold in the contest, the Spanish fans responded with cries of ‘Olé’ each time the team made a pass during its next spell of possession, cheering wildly after Ferran Torres produced an especially tidy piece of skill.
That move eventually ended with Pedri finding Dani Olmo, who picked up his own blocked shot and brought a smart save out of Italian goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma, though the Spanish forward perhaps should a done better — something that has become a common phrase at Euro 2020.
Spain was certainly the team that noticeably improved as the half wore on, but Mikel Oyarzabal wasted probably his side’s best chance, blazing high over the bar and deep into Wembley’s lower bowl after being picked out by Jordi Alba.
The first half had an intriguing ebb and flow, with neither side able to exert any meaningful period of dominance.
On the odd occasion an Italian player did manage to get in behind the Spanish defense or find a small pocket of space, he was quickly smothered by a number of white shirts.
When Mancini’s side did finally fashion an opportunity, Emerson could only find the outside of the woodwork from a tight angle, though Unai Simon’s outstretched hand was perhaps more casual than the shot merited.
After a quiet opening to second half, the game sprung to life as the two teams exchanged quickfire chances.
First, a completely unmarked Sergio Busquets should have done better after being found by Oyarzabal on the edge of the area, but he could only send his shot whistling inches over the crossbar, before Chiesa brought a fine save down low out of Simon at the other end.
However, just moments later it would be Chiesa who finally found the breakthrough.
Italy’s rapid counterattack, started by the quick thinking of Donnarumma, looked to have been cleared by Aymeric Laporte, but Chiesa responded considerably faster than Spain’s sluggish defense to pick up the ball and curl a wonderful effort into the far corner.
Wembley Stadium erupted and for the first time all evening it was clear just how many Italian supporters had descended on this part of London.
Spain responded well, urged on by shouts of ‘si se puede’ — ‘yes you can’ — from its supporters, except Oyarzabal and Olmo couldn’t as they put their efforts wide of the post when well positioned.
Spain then had Simon to thank for keeping them in the game, with the goalkeeper coming out quickly to smother substitute Domenico Berardi’s effort.
However, Spain soon had the equalizer its improved play deserved.
Another lovely passing move was this time capitalized upon, as Morata — much maligned at times during this competition — and Olmo played a wonderful one-two and the former collected the return pass in his stride wonderfully, before calmly slotting into the bottom corner.
With neither side able to find a winning goal, the tie would go to extra time, meaning that every knockout match that Spain had played would last 120 minutes.
At this late stage, there were certainly no signs of nerves holding these teams back.
Spain fans in particular sensed this tie might be there for the taking and they almost had another goal to cheer just minutes into the first period of extra time.
Gerard Moreno’s wicked free-kick was parried away from goal by Donnarumma and Marcos Llorente could only help a difficult just wide of the post after some pinball in the penalty area.
Italy’s supporters had quietened into a nervous hush with their side now on the back foot, while a small section of Spain fans at the other end of the stadium had started performing an impromptu ‘Macarena.’
The Italians did momentarily have cause for celebration, believing that Berardi had found a late winner, only for the goal to be ruled out forr offside.
During the coin toss to decide which end the shootout would be held, Chiellini was laughing as he jokingly tried to convince his counterpart Jordi Alba to allow the penalties to be taken in front of the Italian fans.
Alba remained stony-faced, even as a beaming Chiellini picked him up in a bear hug. Donnarumma and Simon also embraced before the shootout got underway.
After Manuel Locatelli and Olmo had exchanged misses with their teams’ first spot=kicks, the next five penalties were all scored before Morata saw his weak effort saved down low by Donnarumma.
Spain head coach Enrique suggested that Morata was struggling with an injury.
“Morata had an adductor problem, but still wanted to take the penalty and that says so much for his personality,” he told reporters after the game.
“He’s been gigantic for us in this tournament … in professional sport we all have to learn how to win and how to take defeat. That’s why I want to congratulate Italy.
“We’re going back home to Spain safe in the knowledge that we were clearly amongst the best teams at this tournament.”
Jorginho stepped up next, coolly taking his trademark little stutter to send Simon the wrong way and casually roll the ball into the corner.
The mass of blue shirts behind the goal heaved as thousands of fans reached forward to celebrate with their hero.
Reaching the final was perhaps something even the most ardent Italian supporters could not have confidently predicted before the tournament, but winning the whole thing now seems like a very realistic possibility.
™ & © 2021 Cable News Network, Inc., a WarnerMedia Company. All rights reserved.