Italy narrowly beat Belgium in one of Euro 2020’s most exciting matches to meet Spain in the semi-finals.
The three goals of from Azzurri 2-1 came in the first half, with brilliant strikes from Nicolo Barella and Lorenzo Insigne opening a two-goal lead.
However, the deficit was halved moments later after Romelu Lukaku converted from the penalty spot following a clumsy foul by Giovanni Di Lorenzo on teenager Jeremy Doku, who was a notable artist among some of the Belgium’s most established stars.
Lukaku had two great chances to equalize in the second half, but a last-minute Italian defense prevented the Inter Milan striker from having a clear eye on the goal.
Italy played with their backs to the wall for much of the game, but Belgium’s lack of vanguard up front meant their veteran center-defensive duo of Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci were rarely troubled.
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Nicolo Barella is mobbed by his teammates after scoring Italy’s first goal.
Belgium entered this tournament with high expectations, with many calling Euro 2020 a last chance for the country’s aging ‘golden generation’ to win silverware.
The Red Devils had certainly lived up to the hype so far, winning all three of their group games before effectively, if not outright, sending defending champions Portugal to the round of 16.
Conversely, few expected Italy to shine as brightly as at Euro 2020.
The boundless energy of Leonardo Spinazzola and Manuel Locatelli gave this team an exciting offensive advantage, while the return from injury from Marco Verratti gave the midfielder increased control.
Belgium started this game – perhaps as expected – on the front foot, with Lukaku finding space behind the Italian defense twice from the start. The chances didn’t pay off, but it was a sign of things to come as Belgium dominated the first half hour.
Italy believed they had taken the advantage against the run of play after Leonardo Bonucci returned Insigne’s free-kick, but VAR felt the defender had strayed slightly offside.
With Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne was also expected to miss this tie due to injury – or at least be fit enough for the bench – but head coach Roberto Martinez surprised everyone by including the Manchester City star in its initial formation.
There was certainly no warning sign of this troublesome leg injury De Bruyne, who dictated play from midfield and looked explosive on the counterattack.
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Lorenzo Insigne celebrates after scoring Italy’s second goal.
After one of the many runs ahead, a soft left-footed strike allowed Italian goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma to make a superb save. The young keeper was called into action shortly after, deflecting Lukaku’s low shot around the post.
But Belgium would regret not having been able to capitalize on this early domination while Italy took the lead by the half hour.
Barella recovered a loose ball inside the penalty area and made her way through three red shirts, before firing a vicious strike from the far post that left Thibaut Courtois no chance.
Belgium picked up where it left off before the goal, huffing and puffing, but not really troubling Italy’s back line.
Mancini’s side may have strayed somewhat from the classic Italian defense manual, but many of the characteristics that made Italian teams of the past successful remain, especially in veteran Chiellini’s defense preparation. .
However, it would be Italy who scored again and it was Insigne with one of the tournament goals. The small Napoli striker cut inside on his right foot and completed a magnificent effort past Courtois’ outstretched arm and into the far corner.
Belgium was in shock, their players stood with their hands on their hips under Martinez’s gaze, arms crossed, already with a hint of resignation on their face.
But his team were offered a lifeline seconds later, when referee Slavko Vincic pointed the penalty spot following Di Lorenzo’s awkward – albeit a bit limp – push on Doku.
Lukaku was right on the spot, hammering his penalty in the middle of the goal.
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Romelu Lukaku cut Belgium’s deficit in half, but it was not enough.
While the first 45 minutes were up there with the better half of Euro 2020 football so far, the second half didn’t start out the same. Both teams seemed to be content to catch their breath, but Belgium quickly started to move forward in search of an equalizer.
The first opportunity came on the hour mark after Doku’s run and incisive pass found De Bruyne, who placed the ball in front of goal. It seemed like everyone was under the impression that Lukaku would have a simple hit at the far post, but a skillful deflection from Spinazzola just put him out of the striker’s reach.
Italian defenders, especially Chiellini, celebrated with Spinazzola as if he had scored a goal.
Belgium continued to throw everything at Italy, including goalkeeper Courtois for the last corner of the game, but in truth, the Italian back line never seemed to be pierced.
For Belgium’s “golden generation”, this may well be the end of the road, but Italy – which failed even to qualify for the World Cup in 2018 – now has a realistic chance of winning a first major trophy since the 2006 World Cup.
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