Italy is back. The masters of the dark arts who won the 2006 World Cup with defense, grit and hand waving missed the 2018 World Cup, sparking a rethink of the national team. Now Roberto Mancini has Italy two wins away from another major title, with the Azzurri combining a ruthlessly efficient attacking style with Italy’s timeless defense and shithousery.
Nicoló Barella and Lorenzo Insigne ripped scorching goals in the first half as Italy beat world No. 1 Belgium 2-1 in the Euro 2020 quarterfinals on Friday in Munich. The Italians, having become the current favorites to win it all, will face Spain in the semifinals on Tuesday.
Mancini’s Italy is, at times, incredibly fun to watch. The Azzurri can pounce with quick strikes or build up to well-worked goals, scoring 11 times as one of the best offenses at the tournament.
But Italy is, as always, built on defense. Though the team’s record streak of 1,143 minutes without conceding came to an end against Austria in the Round of 16, Gianluigi Donnarumma was massive in goal, as were veteran center backs Georgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci.
Italy has its offense clicking and defense humming, and yet it’s hard not to talk about that killer instinct this Azzurri side appears to have regained — that desire to do whatever it takes to win, whether it’s baiting an opponent into a red card in the World Cup final like Marco Materazzi in 2006 or any of the countless dark arts Italy employed to maintain its lead over Belgium on Friday.
Mancini’s side showed masterful use of the sort of shithousery we in the U.S. usually attribute to the most cynical of Concacaf national teams. But Italy makes it an art.
Before the first goal, Ciro Immobile writhed in apparent pain in the 18-yard box begging for a penalty shot. As soon as his teammate Nicoló Barella scored moments later, he jumped to his feet to celebrate, miraculously cured.
Lorenzo Insigne then struck a gorgeous goal that proved to be the match winner in the 44th minute.
A two-goal hole is hard to overcome anytime, but especially against Italy’s well-drilled defense. But that defense was unable to avoid conceding an admittedly weak penalty kick that allowed Belgium to get back into the match at 2-1 right before halftime.
The second half was a master class in how to see out a match. As the game wore on, Italians milked every potential injury, every potential yellow card and every potential opportunity to kick the ball away.
It worked, as the referee only allotted for five minutes of added time despite far more wasted. The match continued beyond that five minutes, but Belgium fans will certainly feel there should have been even more added on.
The expert time wasting was epitomized in the closing minutes of regulation when Kevin de Bruyne won a free kick outside of the Italy box with 88:30 on the clock. After a delay for Andrea Bellotti to received treatment because Axel Witsel’s arm may have brushed his face, Domenico Berardi ignored the 10-yard rule and blocked KDB’s free kick from five yards out. Italy then made a substitution.
By the time De Bruyne took his free kick, two-and-a-half minutes had elapsed. On the free kick, Donnarumma came out to grab the ball but couldn’t handle it, losing control when Chiellini bumped into him. Somehow, the referee called a foul on Belgium and another 90 seconds ran off before play resumed.
The referee blew the final whistle after seven minutes of added time, despite the fact the ball was hardly in play for those seven minutes.
Pure artistry from Italy. Or nonsense dark arts that should be punished. Either way, Italy is into the semifinals for a showdown with Spain. (The one downside was that when Leonardo Spinazzola was truly injured, Belgium fans booed him for time wasting.)
For Belgium, it’s another disheartening finish to a major international tournament. With a golden generation of talent led by De Bruyne, Lukaku and the Hazard Bros., this was supposed to be the moment the Red Devils broke through with a major trophy. But talent alone won’t win you tournaments.
Let this be a lesson to the USMNT, which hopes its current crop of young talent becomes a golden generation: Playing for Barcelona, Juventus and Chelsea doesn’t mean anything if you can’t put it all together when it matters most.
Belgium perhaps (and the U.S.) should take note of the cynical dark arts employed by Italy on Friday.