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Monday, August 2, 2021

How Italy went from World Cup absentees to Euro 2020 finalists

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Italy have not lost a football match since September 2018 – that is an astonishing run of 33 unbeaten games with the last one coming on Wednesday evening, the semi-final of the Euro 2020.

A 34th and they will be crowned European champions.

Italy are four-time world champions but failed to qualify for the 2018 edition. On Sunday, they will be taking on either England or Denmark in the final of Euro 2020.

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Having taken over Italy at their lowest ebb, manager Roberto Mancini revelled in defying expectations after the Azzurri made it through to the final with a dramatic penalty shoot-out win over Spain.

Italy’s transformation under Mancini in the last three years has been extraordinary. And they were made to fight all the way against Spain, taking the lead through Federico Chiesa’s brilliant goal but being pegged back as Alvaro Morata’s equaliser made it 1-1 and forced extra time before the Azzurri prevailed 4-2 on penalties.

After putting seven goals without reply past Turkey, Switzerland and Wales in the group stage, they ground out an extra-time win over Austria, then beat Belgium in the quarter-finals despite losing star left-back Leonardo Spinazzola to a torn Achilles tendon.

Now they are closing in on a second European Championship title.

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“When you play in a World Cup or a European Championship, it is intense, and there always comes a game where you have to dig in and suffer to win,” said Mancini. “It can’t all be smooth as our progress had been up to now.

“We knew this was the one that was going to be really tough, and that is why I think the players and everyone who has worked with us over the last three years deserves a lot of credit because it has not been easy by any means.

“Almost nobody believed we could do it, and yet we are in the final, so we are pleased for Italians everywhere.”

Italians took to the streets across the country to celebrate, while 11,000 of their fans – all UK-based as restrictions prevented supporters abroad from travelling – were inside Wembley to see Jorginho score the decisive kick in the shoot-out.

How Italy went from World Cup absentees to Euro 2020 finalistsItalian fans celebrate after the shoot-out win over Spain [Guglielmo Mangiapane/Reuters]
How Italy went from World Cup absentees to Euro 2020 finalistsEuro 2020 will see them make their 10th appearance in a final, with six at the World Cup and three at the previous European Championships [Guglielmo Mangiapane/Reuters]

Italy were in a mess after losing to Sweden in a 2018 World Cup qualifying play-off and Mancini had to pick up the pieces from that.

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He has rebuilt them, and at this Euro, they have been almost the complete side: from the veteran centre-back pairing of Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci to brilliant attacking full-backs, a gifted midfield trio of Marco Verratti, Jorginho and Nicolo Barella, and a livewire front line.

“The players wanted to play a brand of football that people enjoyed and thus far they have managed to do exactly that,” added Mancini.

Euro 2020 will see them make their 10th appearance in a final, with six at the World Cup and three at the previous European Championships.

But while they have lifted the World Cup four times, their only continental triumph to date came as hosts of the four-team event in 1968.

Since then, there have been two final losses that were painful in different ways.

In 2000, they were floored by a French golden goal in extra time in Rotterdam, while in 2012 Spain tore them apart to win 4-0 in Kyiv.

“There is still one step to go and now we have to rest up because this really was very challenging,” added Mancini. “When you go into your sixth match with all the travelling it does become very tiring.”

Italy will hope the seventh is even more memorable.

“Playing for my country in matches like these, representing 60 million Italians, was an unbelievable dream,” said Juventus forward Chiesa, the son of Mancini’s old Sampdoria team-mate Enrico Chiesa.

On Tuesday evening, Jorginho stroked home an astonishingly cool spot-kick to settle matters after Spain’s Alvaro Morata, who equalised in regular time, was stopped by keeper Gianluigi Donnarumma.

The Azzurri had been dangerous on counterattacks but it was against the run of play when they took the lead in the 60th minute. Federico Chiesa collected a loose ball to curl brilliantly into the far corner.

Spain struck a deserved equaliser with 10 minutes remaining when substitute Morata played a neat one-two with Dani Olmo before side-footing home but they could not found a winner.

“I just want to congratulate my players, we’ve shown we’re a team and we’ll continue doing that,” said Spain coach Luis Enrique.

How Italy went from World Cup absentees to Euro 2020 finalistsItaly players celebrate reaching the final after winning the penalty shoot-out [Laurence Griffiths/Pool via Reuters]

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How Italy went from World Cup absentees to Euro 2020 finalists
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