Almost irrespective of how the remaining games go, Italy will earn major plaudits for their performances over the last three weeks and will be many people’s pick for team of the tournament.
Roberto Mancini’s team have marched to the semi-finals without too many problems, looking impressive while doing so, showing boundless energy and an attacking fearlessness in their five matches so far.
After shockingly missing out on the last World Cup in 2018, there was a genuine fear that one of the perennial international powerhouses had seen their flame dimmed.
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However, following the appointment of Roberto Mancini, things have changed and ahead of the huge clash with Spain at Wembley, the Azzurri find themselves 32 matches unbeaten, a run stretching back nearly three years.
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It’s not just the upturn in results, the football has changed too with the cautiousness more commonly associated with Italian teams being cast aside for a more adventurous forward-thinking approach.
Their 11 goals are only second to the 12 scored by their semi-final opponents and Italy are currently the only team in triple figures for total goal attempts (101) across the tournament.
However, one thing that has remained is the defensive resolve with Mancini’s backline still being marshalled by the imperious pairing of Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini, age 34 and 36 respectively, as part of his three-man defence.
To put this into perspective, both players were in the Italy starting line-up when Italy last reached the final of the tournament in 2012, only to be overrun by a rampant Spain.
Not that there will be thoughts of revenge when they face off at Wembley this year – Italy eliminated Spain four years later in France and yes, Bonucci and Chiellini played that day too – but both players are far more savvy than to allow anything approaching the 4-0 beating they received in Kiev.
Chiellini and Bonucci celebrate against Belgium
Image credit: Getty Images
Since 2010, the two have featured in 59 matches for their country together, winning 33 and losing just nine, conceding only 58 times - that's in addition to their many years together hoovering up domestic titles with Juventus.
However, on paper, ahead of the competition, rival teams may have seen these two as a potential weak leak given their advancing years and for all their talent and experience, likely to be exposed by even the slightest bit of pace.
Equally, for many, the archetypal modern defender is expected to be able to ‘play’ as well as defend and for Chiellini in particular, the ‘no nonsense’ defensive style can be seen as outdated.
Even for Bonucci, who is more of a ball-player, his better days might have been considered behind him.
Such an assessment could not have been more wide of the mark. In fact, the only goal Italy have conceded with the two on the pitch at the same time was Romelu Lukaku’s penalty in the quarter final win over Belgium.
Even faced with pressure as the Belgians pressed for an equaliser, they stood firm. Making a goal-saving challenge late on, Chiellini leapt up to explode in celebration with his defensive partner - a reaction no less emphatic than that of his goalscoring teammates at the other end of the pitch.
Not only is the pairing still effective but there is clearly still a passion, and even love of defending like no other when they are out on the pitch.
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It is this kind of visible desire that an entire nation will help drive them over the final two hurdles of a competition they were not expected to win beforehand.
The continued inclusion of the two aging stalwarts could perhaps be seen as a lack of trust in any possible alternatives but equally, for Mancini, it is surely a case of ‘if it’s not broke, why fix it?’
Spain, even with question marks over their forward line, will provide a tough test for the veteran defenders but given what we have seen so far, it is a challenge they will no doubt relish.
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