Italy beats Austria, adding grain to their flash


LONDON – The crucial first touch to the opening goal, the one that spawned all that followed, did not come from one of the traditional parts of a body used to control a ball – the foot, sometimes the head, maybe chest – but something a little more unorthodox. Federico Chiesa had to improvise, so he used his face.

Minutes later Andrea Belotti created Italy’s second goal as he was lying on the ground in the wrong direction, with two Austrian defenders crowding around him and desperately trying to extract the ball from under his body. Belotti dragged and twisted and scratched the grass with his outstretched legs, protecting his possession until help arrived.

Neither of these efforts was a case study of refinement. It is not possible, not really, to look elegant by being hit in the nose by a bullet, or by squirming on the back. The goals themselves could have been feats of skill – a nice volley from Chiesa, then an emphatic finish from Matteo Pessina – but they had been created by more rudimentary virtues: tenacity, courage and inflexibility.

Italy captured a lot of hearts and minds in the first two weeks of Euro 2020. Roberto Mancini’s side beat Turkey in the tournament opener in Rome and then swept away Switzerland . With his place in the round of 16 secured, Mancini sent in a ghost team for the final match, but he was still good enough to knock out Wales while barely sweating.

It wasn’t just the results, however. Mancini’s Italy performed with flair, style and panache. It was young and dynamic and, most importantly, fun, the characteristic that the coach had told his players that he appreciated above all else.

This Italy represented a clean break not only with its own past – all those graying defenses and suffocating systems – but with the dogma that dominates international football, the one that decrees that in order to win, a team must above all be tough and stubborn. and controlled. Italy opposed all of this. It was clear, open, and just a little wild.

From those metrics, then, watching the same team strive for a 2-1 overtime victory over a spirited but limited Austrian side should provide a brutal test of reality. It’s only been a week or so since Austria was dismantled by the Netherlands, after all; It hasn’t been two yet as it took two late goals to face the tournament’s biggest underdog North Macedonia.

And yet, in the cavernous, resounding bowl of a three-quarter empty Wembley stadium, Austria first drew the Italians’ sting, then sapped their hopes and ultimately almost took their place in the quarterfinals. . For much of the second half Franco Foda’s Austria seemed to stumble and stumble Italy. Only a narrow and late offside appeal deprived Marko Arnautovic of a first goal.

At this point, Italy did not look like a team recovering from a setback. Lorenzo Insigne and Domenico Berardi, so electric in the group stage, were ineffective. Marco Verratti had been erratic in midfield.

The closest Mancini team had come with a thunderous effort from Ciro Immobile that cracked the post, and even that had been some sort of speculative, dice-rolling shot from a distance best described as improbable. . The fluid and adventurous approach which marked Italy’s first engagements in this tournament was conspicuous by its absence, buried under the tension of the occasion.

That, of course, was always going to be the problem with Mancini’s approach. International tournaments aren’t really meant to be enjoyed. Once the knockout stage comes around they are very endangered and not much fun. The players, after all, are only humans. Caution sets in when there are so many at stake.

And that’s what he and his players should take heart. A beautiful breakaway against a largely unrecognized opponent like Austria does not prove that Italy is not good enough to win the European Championship; conversely, it shows that it has the characteristics necessary to do this.

Gradually, after Arnautovic’s goal was disallowed, Italy regained control. The presentations by Chiesa, Belotti and Pessina helped; this in-depth strength will also be helpful. At the end of regulation time, Austria were stuck in their own half, on the edge of their penalty area, doing what they could to help the clock turn.

After Chiesa and Pessina scored, and after Italy assumed the game was over and a place in the quarter-finals was assured, Sasa Kalajdzic fended off a goal with a smart diving header that surprised Gianluigi Donnarumma, the Italian goalkeeper. . There were seven minutes left to play. At this point, Italian nerves could have been ripped apart.

They do not have. Instead, Italy closed the game, with the kind of ruthless efficiency that some of their most illustrious predecessors would have instantly recognized. Austria did not come close to Donnarumma’s goal again. Indeed, with a little more composure in front of goal, both Chiesa and Belotti could have made the final score a little more flattering.

Maturity, control, composure, relentlessness: these may not be the qualities that capture the imagination during the free and easy days of the group stages, but they are the ones that are needed when it all comes down to a game, an hour and a half, when a winger who will control the ball with his face or a striker who will lie on the ground and scramble to find a pass is no less valuable than a perfect through ball or a counter lightning attack.

There are, of course, more difficult tests to come; Italy will face Belgium or Portugal in the quarter-finals. Go through that and, most likely, the rather dubious reward will be France or Spain on the prowl in the last four. The fact that Mancini’s side have just passed Austria is no proof that either will go too far. Quite the contrary. Glamor won’t get you far. To get to the end, grain is the key.

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