Back on the Wembley turf 25 years after losing to England on penalties at Euro ‘96, Spain once again lost a crucial penalty shootout in Tuesday's semi-final. They head home from Euro 2020 with their heads held high after exceeding all expectations, but ultimately they came up short against a resolute Italian side. Having beaten Italy on penalties at Euro 2008 on their way to the title, this time it is the Azzurri who head to the final after Alvaro Morata's vital miss from 12 yards.
That match against Italy in 2008 was utterly seismic for Spain. Having so often been beaten by Italy in the past, this was their breakthrough moment and it came on penalties. From that night on, they went on a run of three consecutive international triumphs, including two European Championship titles.
This penalty shootout, although a gut-wrenching defeat, certainly proves this new generation of Spanish players have what it takes to compete with the very best, and make no mistake... the Italians are the very best at this year’s Euros. Luis Enrique’s side went toe-to-toe with them, dominated possession and were the better team over 120 minutes, but could not convert the pressure penalties.
They may have only beaten Slovakia in normal time at Euro 2020, but despite the exit, Spain head home with a whole load of positives. Luis Enrique has proved against the odds he is the right man to lead this team forward, and in Pedri, who performed magnificently, they have a truly world-class young talent to build their side around.
Eric Garcia, Pau Torres and Aymeric Laporte have the potential to build a partnership as solid as the one Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci share at the other end, while Dani Olmo and Ferran Torres are truly talented attackers. It won’t feel like it now, but a semi-final exit is something to be proud of for this group of players. With the World Cup just 18 months away, Spain’s new generation may be closer than we first thought to tasting success once again.
It was a difficult tactical dilemma for the manager but this semi-final perhaps could and should have been won by Spain in normal time. Luis Enrique's decision to play with a false nine and leave out both Morata and Gerard Moreno meant that Spain utterly dominated possession, but on reflection, he may have one or two regrets. Their football was reminiscent of that played by those Spanish legends of a decade ago as they teased and tortured the Italian defence, but by putting in a false nine to retain possession, they lost that cutting edge up front.
Morata may have eventually missed that crucial penalty, but the difference between strikerless Spain and the side we saw with him on the pitch was stark. His substitution did not provide instant gratification as he ran wide when presented with a good through ball, but in the key moment he made it count. When faced up by Gianluigi Donnarumma, that striker's goalscoring instinct simply cannot be replaced by any strikerless system. He rolled the ball into the corner and was the calmest man in the stadium and perhaps the whole of Spain as he dragged them back into the tie.
Extra time followed as Spain continued their domination of the ball and Italy defended for their lives to take the game to penalties. Although they beat Switzerland on spot-kicks in the last round, Spain’s record from 12 yards in the past has been poor, and that continued here as Morata, for all his good work during the game, missed the crucial spot-kick. No side has ever won two penalty shootouts in the same Euros, and that astonishing record continues.
But, despite the defeat, the future's looking bright for Spain under Luis Enrique. Nobody expected them to get this far after their turgid start, and they were only a penalty shootout away from reaching the final. Italy progress to the final, but with this young and talented squad, Spain’s rising stars may usher in another trophy-laden period in the near future.