Italy’s fight to get past Austria on Sunday night reflects both their limitations and a doughty strength they can be encouraged by.
Many had expected Italy to find it an easy task to get past their neighbouring rivals in their game at Wembley. After all, Austria have David Alaba and Marko Arnautovic, with the latter now a Shanghai Port player since 2019. They have a solid team, but the quality is not consistent across the first XI. Indeed, while they put the work in last night they ultimately could not hold back their opponents for as long as they needed.
While Arnautovic might be a fading force at 31, this was perhaps his last chance to show the world stage what he is capable of. Playing in China is a great way to make sure he is comfortable for the rest of his life, financially speaking anyway. However, it is no way to build a legacy. After missing out on a move to Manchester United when Jose Mourinho was manager, perhaps the forward realised he would have to go for money rather than embellishing his CV for the remainder of his career. A fair decision, but one that means he can't serve his country as he might have wished to.
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He still gave Italy a fright, though, and when VAR ruled, what looked like a potential winner, offside, it did not seem to kickstart Italy’s mood. Instead, it damaged it, with Roberto Mancini’s players finding it hard to escape their malaise. After such an impressive group stage, one that had seen them emerge as surprising favourites in the eyes of some, perhaps Italy had started to believe their own hype.
At the very least, a setting of confidence should have been instilled by Mancini and all he had done with his team. They had not conceded a goal in competitive football since October 2020. At these finals, they have dispatched Turkey, Switzerland and Wales without too much strife. Austria were meant to be the next team to be swept aside. Mancini has created a side that is more than the sum of its parts, the inverse of the teams he created at moneybags Manchester City. The defensive record is an example of the hardworking team he has created. No easy thing during a time of pandemic, and when he can only see his players intermittently.
While the teamwork kept Austria at bay, just, until the last few moments, it is perhaps an indication of a hardy resilience that they could keep their cool well into extra time. For all their obvious fatigue, they did not panic, and they did not crumble. Other teams have and could have fallen apart under pressure this summer, not least their erstwhile opponents Wales in the day’s first game. Instead, Italy took their own concern and faced it down, unwilling to give into any doubts they had, and any of the threats offered up by their opponents.
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It was Federico Chiesa, the closest thing that Italy has to an emerging new superstar, who proved the difference. At 23 he has spent a year on loan with Juventus, ahead of another year’s temporary transfer before the deal becomes permanent. His talent saw him score a remarkable 14 goals in 43 games for his new side last year, a record that betrays the direct contribution he can make from wide positions. He did the same thing for the national team on Saturday, and he may have earned himself a start for a team that focuses its attacks through its full-backs down the flanks, and through the middle with its attackers.
When Portugal play Belgium they will decide who will be Italy’s and Mancini’s quarter-finals opponents. There is much to give Italy encouragement now. They already knew they were not a team of superstars, and that they would not find this tournament easy. What Saturday’s game has proven to them is that they have the required mental strength, they have a matchwinner, and they have the mentality that means they will not give up for one another. In a Euro 2020 blighted by coronavirus and the demands of travel, that could be enough to go all the way.
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