From the moment Italy kicked off Euro 2020 on opening night at the Stadio Olimpico, they had the look of champions-elect.

That wasn’t always the case in their semi-final win over Spain, but the Azzurri will now have the opportunity to live up to their early-tournament billing with a final against Denmark or England on Sunday.

All things considered, no team at Euro 2020 has underlined their credentials like the Azzurri have.

Roberto Mancini has turned Italy into a dynamic, modern outfit, the antithesis of the country’s archetypal footballing identity, but even as his master plan faltered here, they had enough within them. In relative weakness, this was a show of strength.

‘Comfortable in their own skin’

For long spells, this was a contest that demonstrated the apparent condition of both teams. While Spain are stuck between generations, and footballing ideologies, Italy are more comfortable in their own skin, aware of their own strengths and weaknesses.

Until late on, Mancini’s side looked to be executing their game plan well enough to send them through in 90 minutes.

Spain’s game plan, though, was a good one. Pre-match, much was made of the battle between the two best midfielders at Euro 2020.

While Italy’s trio of Nicolo Barella, Jorginho and Marco Verratti caught the eye with their dynamism earlier in the tournament, it was the control of Sergio Busquets, Koke and Pedri that gave Spain, who claimed a 70% share of possession, the advantage.

Spinazolla absence keenly felt

So much of Mancini’s Euro 2020 approach had been focused on getting Leonardo Spinazolla into advanced positions down the left, but with the Roma full back out injured the fear was Italy would find an important attacking route shut off to them.

While Emerson Palmieri still stretched the pitch as Spinazzola’s deputy, his driving runs weren’t as regular and certainly not as cutting [he only registered one cross in 73 minutes].

With Spain man-marking Jorginho and Verratti, though, Italy found it difficult to play out from the back. This resulted in Gianluigi Donnarumma taking more risks with his distribution, leading to two golden opposition opportunities, one of which Dani Olmo should have converted.

Enrique also demanded his full backs push high to compress things even further in the middle and force turnovers [of which 13 were made].

Spain’s lack of ruthless edge costs them

Pedri completed all 31 passes he attempted in the first half with Spain seemingly one ball away from breaking in behind an Italian defensive line that was being pulled higher by Olmo playing in the ‘false nine’ role.

Yet that ball didn’t come [Olmo was the only player to complete a through ball in the whole match], continuing an unwelcome trend for Spain at Euro 2020, and Italy made them pay.

While Spain kept things compact for much of the contest, Italy exposed them on the rapid break when a Jordi Alba cross into the box was stopped. Federico Chiesa provided the moment of brilliance to break the deadlock, but it was the quick action of his Azzurri teammates that created the opening.

When Mancini made his first change of the match, it wasn’t Chiesa who was hooked for Domenico Berardi, as would have ordinarily been the case – it was Ciro Immobile who came off instead.

By making this alteration, Italy leaned even further into their counter-attacking approach with Berardi, Chiesa and Insigne all capable of breaking out at pace.

This was a pattern that Enrique surely would have envisaged as a nightmare scenario for Spain before kick off. With a lead to protect, Italy were allowed to sit back, close off the space in behind Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini and ask Spain, frequently criticised for a lack of cutting edge, to play through them.

Spain substitutes expose Italy frailties

While the situation was perfectly set for Italy, their one-on-one defending wasn’t up to much. Alvaro Morata’s introduction unsettled them, with the Spanish striker willing to run in behind in a way Olmo and Mikel Oyarzabal weren’t. Morata’s goal got Spain back on level terms, but the dynamic of the match had changed before then.

Mancini attempted to introduce some athleticism into his midfield by throwing on Manuel Locatelli and Matteo Pessina, but extra time was played at Spain’s tempo and with Morata acting as a genuine attacking apex and the impressive Olmo able to bounce off him the Euro 2008 and 2012 winners looked a more complete side.

Spain’s greatest strength is in the way they deny opposition teams possession. Starved of the ball, Italy simply weren’t able to play their own game for as long as they would have hoped. Mancini’s game plan was disrupted in a way that hadn’t been seen before at this tournament.

In this instance, it was the strength of Italy’s characters as individuals, not their manager or structure, that proved the difference.

Source: Graham Ruthven