Wales are through to the knockout stage of Euro 2020 after finishing in second spot in Group A, but their 1-0 defeat to Italy in Rome on Sunday told us far more about the growing belief around the Azzurri squad than it did about what this tournament might have in store for the Dragons.
Matteo Pessina’s goal late in the first half was the least a much-weakened Italy deserved, with a dominance of the play which belied the rotation Roberto Mancini had employed pre-match. With no Lorenzo Insigne, Ciro Immobile, Giorgio Chiellini and more, this ought to have been a window of opportunity for Wales.
But in truth, Marco Verratti, Andrea Belotti, Federico Bernardeschi and more just served to underline the depth available to Mancini as the Azzurri launch an assault on the latter stages. This squad means business, and if you look at the way these six Group A games have gone, it is arguable that Italy have had both the best and the second best XI on show among the four nations on display.
The eight changes that Mancini made to his Italy side might have given some Wales fans hope that they could be about to see something monumental, particularly after the visitors got into their stride quickest in the opening exchanges. But once the game settled into a pattern there was only one team able to get the ball, with Italy dominating possession.
There felt an inevitability that the Azzurri would eventually score after near-misses from Belotti and Federico Chiesa, and even Wales’ best effort on the break – a Chris Gunter header from a Daniel James corner which just cleared the bar – felt like an rare opportunity missed rather than a sign of things to come.
And after Verratti was fouled by Joe Allen shortly before the break, the Paris Saint-Germain star whipped in a free-kick which Pessina guided superbly across Danny Ward with the most delicate of touches to give Italy the lead.
Such had been the Italians’ dominance, there was a stage during the first half at which keeper Ward had touched the ball more often than any of his Wales teammates, with the home side asking plenty of questions of the Leicester City shot-stopper.
As if the multiple pre-match changes weren’t enough, Mancini removed skipper Leonardo Bonucci at half-time, and yet still they seemed unlikely to be knocked out of their stride.
Just when Wales looked to pick up the pace of their play early in the second half, Ethan Ampadu’s red card for a late stamp on Federico Bernardeschi’s ankle stopped them in their tracks.
From there, Wales’ task was about keeping the score as it was against the backdrop of Switzerland’s 3-1 win against Turkey in Baku, which meant that a narrow defeat was good enough for the Dragons. Successive runs to the knockout rounds in the Euros is a massive, massive achievement.
But what we learned in Rome was that Italy are the real deal. This, perhaps more than their 3-0 wins over Turkey and Switzerland, told us everything we need to know about just how ready the Azzurri are to take this challenge to the best the continent has to offer.