Italy narrowly defeated Belgium in one of the most exciting games of Euro 2020 to advance to the semifinals, where they will face Spain.
The Azzurri scored all three goals in the first half, with brilliant strikes from Nicolo Barella and Lorenzo Insigne giving them a two-goal lead.
After a clumsy foul by Giovanni Di Lorenzo on teenager Jeremy Doku, who was a standout performer among some of Belgium’s more established stars, the deficit was halved just moments later when Romelu Lukaku converted from the penalty spot.
In the second half, Lukaku had two great chances to equalize, but some last-ditch Italian defending denied the Inter Milan striker a clear shot.
Belgium entered the tournament with high hopes, with many predicting that Euro 2020 will be the final chance for the country’s aging ‘golden generation’ to win a silverware.
The Red Devils had lived up to the hype thus far, winning all three of their group games before dispatching defending champion Portugal in the last 16 with efficiency, if not emphaticity. Few, on the other hand, expected Italy to perform as well as it has at Euro 2020.
The boundless energy of players like Leonardo Spinazzola and Manuel Locatelli has given this team a thrilling attacking edge, while Marco Verratti’s return from injury has given the midfield more control.
Belgium, perhaps predictably, got off to a fast start, with Lukaku finding space behind the Italian defense on two occasions early on. The chances were wasted, but it was a foreshadowing of what was to come as Belgium dominated the first half hour.
After Leonardo Bonucci turned home Insigne’s free-kick against the run of play, VAR ruled the defender had strayed narrowly offside.
Kevin De Bruyne, like Eden Hazard, was expected to miss this match due to injury, or at the very least only be fit enough to sit on the bench, but head coach Roberto Martinez surprised everyone by starting the Manchester City star.
De Bruyne, who was dictating play from midfield and looking explosive on the counterattack, showed no signs of his leg injury early on.
A sweet, left-footed strike brought a brilliant save from Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma after one of several marauding runs forward. Soon after, the young goalkeeper was called upon again, this time turning Lukaku’s low shot around the post.
Belgium, on the other hand, would come to regret not capitalizing on its early dominance when Italy took the lead at the half-hour mark.
Barella picked up a loose ball inside the penalty area and jinked his way past three red shirts before slamming a vicious strike past Thibaut Courtois at the far post.
Belgium continued where it left off prior to the goal, huffing and puffing but failing to trouble Italy’s defense.
Mancini’s team may have deviated from the traditional Italian defensive textbook, but many of the characteristics that have made Italy teams successful in the past remain, most notably veteran Chiellini’s command of the defense.
However, it was Italy who scored again, this time through Insigne, who scored one of the tournament’s best goals. The Napoli striker cut inside onto his right foot and curled a wonderful effort past Courtois’ outstretched arm and into the far corner.
Belgium’s players were stunned, and they stood around with their hands on their hips as Martinez stood there, arms folded, a hint of resignation on his face.
But, just seconds later, his team was given a lifeline when referee Slavko Vincic pointed to the penalty spot after Di Lorenzo’s clumsy — albeit soft — push on Doku.
Lukaku made no mistake from the penalty spot, hammering his penalty into the goal’s middle.
If the first 45 minutes of football at Euro 2020 were among the best so far, the second period did not start in the same way. Both teams appeared to be content to take a breather, but Belgium quickly began pressing forward in search of an equalizer.
The first chance came after Doku’s incisive run and pass found De Bruyne, who squared the ball across the face of goal on the hour mark.
It looked as if Lukaku would have a simple tap-in at the far post, but a deft deflection from Spinazzola just took the ball away from the striker.
The Italian defenders, especially Chiellini, congratulated Spinazzola as if he had scored a goal.
Belgium continued to throw everything they had at Italy, including goalkeeper Courtois for the game’s final corner, but the Italian defense never looked like it would be breached.
This could be the end of the road for Belgium’s ‘golden generation,’ but Italy, who failed to qualify for the World Cup in 2018, now has a realistic chance of winning a major trophy for the first time since the 2006 World Cup.