Belgium vs. Italy | Friday July 2, 2021 | European Championship | Euro 2020

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It’s a special team from Italy. Not only did they reach the Euro 2020 semi-finals in a remarkable response to their generational low during World Cup qualifiers in 2017, but they did so with a vibrant and perennial bluster like so few. Italian teams of past years have adopted.

Their 2-1 victory over Belgium in Friday’s quarter-final in Munich saw them take their biggest scalp yet in this swashbuckling attempt to repay a nation that was so recently reeling from the World Cup with a first European champion title in 53 years.

Roberto Mancini, a manager whose stock had collapsed in recent years after a trio of forgettable spells at Galatasaray, Inter and Zenit St Petersburg, now has the Azzurri attacking at will in large numbers even while leading, while previous Italian sides would have done what they could to retain their advantage.

It’s not to play on the Italian stereotype of catenaccio and all that. Think back to so many tournaments in the past. There would be long stretches of matches in which Italy would prioritize caution, with counterattacks administered in one and two. The sight of left-back Leonardo Spinazzola bombarding into the penalty area beyond striker Ciro Immobile on Friday was the perfect representation of what Mancini injected into the Azzurri.

Perhaps it was not surprising that Spinazzola pulled out a hamstring late, such is the ground the Roma man covers in this most dynamic approach. Built around the excellence of Nicolo Barella, Marco Verratti and Jorginho at the center of the park, Italy once again thrilled the neutrals as the world’s number one ranked team were sent to crash. Lorenzo Insigne, once again, gave pride of place to the damage in the final third.

Of course, the strength also remains, and the sight of skipper Giorgio Chiellini coming back into the starting XI after an injury was a huge boost. He and Leonardo Bonucci reconnected in the heart of the defense and gave their side the platform to go make hay.

BARELLA AND INSIGNE MARKED THE VITALS GOAL FOR ITALY

Bonucci even appeared to be on the scoresheet in the opening 15 minutes, returning a bouncing ball inside the six-yard penalty area as Belgium struggled to cope with a free kick from the right wing. But the goal was canceled by VAR after the Juventus center-half turned out to be slightly offside.

It didn’t matter, as Italy returned straight to the offensive and at the half hour mark, Barella finished a sweeping attack after Belgium gave the ball the cheap, man’s strike from the Inter through the goal leaving Thibaut Courtois with little luck.

But the best was yet to come. Lorenzo Insigne, who had earlier seen an easily managed curling effort by Courtois, picked up the ball in the middle of the field, ran to the curled up Belgian endline and sent an arc masterpiece from a effort beyond the goalkeeper’s hand and into the far upper corner. It was a goal that matched the beauty of Italy’s performance, and a two-goal lead that reflected their dominance.

The margin was halved in three minutes, as Giovanni Di Lorenzo’s misguided challenge to Jeremy Doku resulted in a penalty and Romelu Lukaku finished with aplomb. It was a moment that would have shaken the other teams, and that we have already seen change the game in this tournament.

But Italy kept looking for more until very late in the proceedings, and it wasn’t until Belgium picked up the pace in the final 10 minutes that the Azzurri started adding numbers behind the ball. Their exciting approach to the vast majority of the game deserved a few moments to catch their breath.

The next stop for Italy is Spain, a team which made up for its hopes in the European Championships in 2008 and 2012 at a time when La Roja was the star attraction. When they meet at Wembley on Tuesday, it is the Azzurri that most neutrals will desperately seek to watch out for.

It says a lot about the quality of the work Mancini has done to change the perception of Italy. Two more performances like this, and they will have turned the failure of the World Cup into a European title in four years.

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