Italy and Spain are heavyweights of international football, yet neither was among the list of favourites for many before Euro 2020. Spain’s poor performance in the 2018 Fifa World Cup and Italy’s complete absence had cast doubts over the credentials of the two giants.

But slowly, one game at a time, both Italy and Spain emerged as two of the best teams in the competition as the more fancied teams fell by the wayside.

The Italy-Spain semi-final at Euro 2020 was a sort of clash of the titans and that’s how it panned out. Both teams went for it from the word go and there was no handbrake. Even though Luis Enrique’s team had greater control of the game, Italy carried a threat every time they won the ball back.

Eventually, Italy sneaked past Spain 4-2 on penalties to reach the Euro 2020 final after a 1-1 draw at Wembley on Tuesday.

A near-60,000 crowd saw Federico Chiesa’s stunning strike open the scoring before Alvaro Morata sent the game to extra time. However, Morata and Dani Olmo missed in the shoot-out as Italy progressed to face England or Denmark on Sunday.

Italy have won every match in the competition and thus are worthy finalists, but Spain were probably the better team on the day.

Dictating terms

The two teams had taken the game to their opponents in their previous matches at the competition, but it was Spain who were able to impose themselves on the Italians.

Enrique’s men had topped the possession charts all along but managing to achieve that even against the Italians was a testament to their abilities. This was only the second time in this competition that Italy did not have more possession than their opponents. Spain’s pressing stifled the Italians not allowing them to build up play freely. Italy’s passing accuracy against Spain was also their lowest at Euro 2020.

The three-time European champions played without a recognised striker and it caused Italy problems. Dani Olmo who started out wide on the right started to drift inside when Alvaro Morata came on to create an overload in the central area. Olmo’s movement dragged Italy’s left-back Emerson infield as the Azzurri lost their shape.

Spain had a total of 11 shots compared to Italy’s six in the game. However, the problem for Spain was a lack of a clinical finisher, something that had plagued them throughout the competition.

Morata hero and villain

Morata once described training against Giorgio Chiellini at Juventus as “being put in a cage with a gorilla and you have to steal his food”.

With 10 minutes left, Morata left the 36-year-old trailing with a calm finish completely out of keeping with his demons in front of goal throughout the tournament.

Even before the Euro began, Morata had to listen of chants of “how bad are you” from his own fans in a pre-tournament friendly against Portugal. He missed a penalty and a host more chances as Spain failed to win either of their opening group games, but came good with a stunning finish to turn a rollercoaster last-16 tie against Croatia, which La Roja eventually won 5-3, back in his side’s favour in extra time.

Often criticised for his faith in the Juventus striker, Luis Enrique left him on the bench for the first time in the tournament as he opted instead for a striker-less system with Olmo, Mikel Oyarzabal and Ferran Torres forming a flexible front three. But that trio were all wasteful as Spain dominated but failed to take their chances and looked set to exit when Chiesa showed them how to be clinical with a sumptuous strike on the hour mark.

Morata was immediately summoned from the sidelines by Luis Enrique and finally produced some reward for Spain’s dominance of the ball when he played a neat one-two with Olmo and nonchalantly slotted past the grounded Gianluigi Donnarumma.

However, Donnarumma was the hero of the shoot-out as he saved Morata’s meek penalty low to his left and Jorginho rolled home the next spot-kick to ensure Italy return to Wembley at the weekend.

Italy’s resilience

Even though Roberto Mancini’s men were second best for large parts of the game, they managed to keep Spain honest through their resilience, a quality one associates with great Italian teams of the past.

Italy’s famed centre-back partnership of Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci thwarted Spain’s efforts. In full-back positions, Di Lorenzo and Emerson too had great games. In midfield, Jorginho and Marco Verrati didn’t have it all their way but showed phenomenal tactical discipline to neutralise Spanish attacks. Manuel Locatelli who came on for Verratti exuded composure amid growing Spanish pressure in extra time. Italy had been rampant throughout the tournament, but they were ready to grind it out when needed.

“When you play in a World Cup or a European Championship it is intense, and there always comes a game where you have to dig in and suffer to win,” said caoch Mancini.

“It can’t all be smooth as our progress had been up to now. We knew this was the one that was going to be really tough and that is why I think the players and everyone who has worked with us over the last three years deserves a lot of credit because it has not been easy by any means,” he added.

Mancini’s Italy had a different look than Italian teams of the past that were slightly more defensive but the Azzurri showed on Tuesday that while adding flair to their game, they had retained their core strengths.

Pedri and signs of a bright Spanish future

Had Euro 2020 gone ahead as planned 12 months ago, Pedri would not have been close to Luis Enrique’s squad. But winning just his 10th cap, the Barcelona midfielder again showed why he is a fitting heir to Andres Iniesta for club and country.

One sumptuous through ball cut through the normally impenetrable Italian defence early on and deserved a better finish from Mikel Oyarzabal.

Italy’s 33-match unbeaten run has been built on the midfield trio of Jorginho, Marco Verratti and Nicolo Barella controlling games. But Spain again showed no country is as prolific at producing midfield maestros as Sergio Busquets’s experience and Koke’s energy complemented Pedri’s poise.

In the 90 minutes, he completed all of his 55 passes.

Just as impressively, the teenager continued to demand the ball well into his third consecutive game to go the full 120 minutes.

Pedri played all but one minute of Spain’s campaign and has covered more ground than any other player in the tournament.

Spain may have lost out to the resilient Italians on the day, but there were enough signs at Euro 2020, that the future may once again belong to the La Roja.

(With AFP inputs)