Euro 2020: Is This Where Italy's Incredible Run Ends?
After spectacularly failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, the Italians were sent into hiding, staring out upon the football world through their blinds and from within their dark blue pyjamas.
Roberto Mancini has since entered the equation, rehabilitating this proud footballing nation and using these Euros as the Azzurri’s reintroduction to respectable footballing citizenry.
The Italians have so far razzled and dazzled their way through the continent’s showpiece event, booking their place at a major tournament semi-final for the first time in 9 years.
Their +7 group-stage differential was the best any team has produced at Euro level since the Dutch in 2008, with half a dozen different players so far finding their way onto the scoresheet.
Italy is the only team at this tournament to have registered 100 total shots, while their 169 shot-creating actions also lead the way, as too do their 18 goal-creating actions.
Yet perhaps a little lost within the justifiable hysteria surrounding Italy’s incredible campaign is that their rearguard has started to get a little wobbly, and just as the calibre of opposition has stepped up.
Italy, along with fellow semi-finalist England, were the only team to progress through the group stage without a single goal conceded, yet unlike England, the Azzurri haven't been able to keep their flawless record in tact, having been breached by both Austria and Belgium, with their expected goals against figure painting an even more concerning picture.
In each of Italy’s handful of matches at these Euros, their xGA number has risen gradually, and if not for the the sheer magnificence of Gianluigi Donnarumma, there's every chance Belgium could have (perhaps should have) equalised in their quarter-final in Munich.
And it’s in speaking about expected goals against where Spain comes thundering into view, particularly considering La Rioja have been one of these Euro’s most dominant offensive sides, and whose tournament-leading 12 goals have been supported by easily the competition’s most robust 14.4 xG number.
While Spain laboured through their first two Euro games, failing to score against Sweden and netting just once against Poland, they’ve since completely erupted, scoring 11 times in their next 3, while also maintaining their possession-obsessed ways.
So far this tournament Spain have produced an overwhelming 67.5% possession number, and while that ordinarily wouldn’t be a massive problem for more traditional Italian outfits, this version under Mancini is much more free-wheeling and expansive and which has the potential to play right into Spain’s hands.
And this will be even more pronounced owing the injury to perhaps Italy’s best player all tournament, Leonardo Spinazzola.
The AS Roma left-back has been a revelation at these Euros, providing so much drive for this attacking Italian team while still holding his end defensively with his 41 pressure acts representing the pick of all the Azzurri defenders.
The problem for Italy is that Spain not only love to monopolise possession, but they also like to progress the ball forward and camp once there, which not only keeps defences on their toes, but ensures that opposition attacks invariably start from quite a long way back.
Spain’s 274.7 attacking-third touches per-90 minutes has easily been the Euro's strongest number, while no less than 37% of their attacks have been down the right side, an area Emerson will be filling in for Spinazzola.
Nothing will take away the joy and sense of relief this Italian footballing renaissance has inspired, yet a semi-final against an increasingly potent Spain suddenly becomes very serious.
While this coming-out party has been a joy for fans, a major semi-final is a different proposition entirely, while losing them is one of the emptiest feelings in sport.
How Mancini and his squad respond to Spain's potent threat, in addition to compensating for the loss of Spinazzola, will determine if they can book their place in a Final, or whether they instead head back to Italy in tears.
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