They’ve done it. The failures have become finalists. After stretching their unbeaten run to 33 games, Italy head to the Euro 2020 final on Sunday ready to well and truly dispel the horrible memories of their World Cup qualifying exit in 2017, which felt at the time like the end of an era but has actually made way for a brilliant new dawn.
Their semi-final penalty shootout win after a 1-1 draw against Spain at Wembley on Tuesday was not their greatest performance of the tournament by any stretch of the imagination, but Federico Chiesa’s goal, the extra-time showing of grit and the cool heads displayed from the spot typified everything that is great about Roberto Mancini’s side.
On this night, their intense pressing game of previous matches was less evident, and at times it felt like a real struggle to cope with Spain’s endless passing drills, but this Italy squad has so many tools at its disposal. We’d already seen against Austria that they didn’t have to be brilliant to be successful, and they again showed here that they can be deadly when cornered and resilient when it matters too.
It looked like a very different proposition for Italy from early on in proceedings. They were not pressing high as they had in the vast majority of their five previous matches, there appeared to be a reticence to leave too much space in case the likes of Sergio Busquets saw their positivity as an invitation to play killer balls in behind.
They still got occasional chances. Emerson Palmieri should have released the ball sooner for Nicolo Barella as the Inter midfielder made a run, meaning that his eventual shot against the post counted for nothing anyway due to an offside flag. Soon after, when Emerson coaxed out the onrushing Unai Simon, neither Ciro Immobile nor Barella could quite get the ball out of their feet quickly enough to get a shot away.
At the other end, Gianluigi Donnarumma’s difficulty getting passes in to his teammates accurately made for a couple of Spain chances as Luis Enrique’s men succeeded in pressing where Italy were failing.
But for all of Spain’s dominance of possession, the Azzurri always felt most likely to break the deadlock. And when they opened the scoring on the hour mark from a rapid-fire counter attack it felt entirely appropriate that a fantastic game had delivered such a wonderful goal.
Donnarumma’s roll out to Marco Verratti was fired to Lorenzo Insigne, whose killer pass from the wing was cut out as Immobile ran into its path. From there, Chiesa intercepted, took a couple of touches and fired an unstoppable effort across Simon. It was a devastating finish.
From there, you would have expected Italy to have the tools to close the game out, but Alvaro Morata came off the bench and brought Spain right back on terms. His excellent pass to Dani Olmo was returned into his path with the Azzurri back line squared up completely and Morata waltzed through to slot home.
After a tense extra time period, Manuel Locatelli had his opening penalty saved but they still weren't going to be denied. After Dani Olmo had skied Spain's first, Donnarumma kept out Morata and it was Jorginho who side-footed Italy into the final.
It has been said before but is worth reiterating time and again just how much of a low ebb Italy’s national team was at three-and-a-half years ago when Gian Piero Ventura failed to take them to the 2018 World Cup.
Nobody, but nobody, could have suspected back on 13 November 2017 when the full-time whistle was blow against Sweden that on 11 July 2021 they would be watching Italy in a European Championship final. But that is the truth of what awaits on Sunday night.
Whether it is England or Denmark who win Wednesday’s second semi, Italy are one win away from the ultimate of turnarounds.