EDOARDO COZZA / AIPS** in OLOMOUC: Italy finished third and thus left for home but with their heads held high. This was an unlucky campaign for the Azzurrini.

They played only one half of a match badly – the first, against Sweden – but were eliminated despite having not only the same points but a better goal difference of Sweden.

However, in UEFA U21 Euro, as in the Champions League group stage, the initial separation is determined by the mutual result – which was 2-1 to the Swedes. Hence Sweden and not Italy progressed to the semi-finals and the 2016 Rio Olympics.

The first match, against the Swedish team, was decisive. Italy started well, took the lead with a Domenico Berardi penalty and even had a player advantage after Swedish defender Alexander Milosevic was red-carded.

But they relaxed too much, conceded an equaliser and lost their heads. Stefano Sturaro, naively, incurred a red card, Francesco Bardi fouled Mikael Ishak just inside the penalty box and Isaac Kiese Thelin converted for a surprising 2-1 win to Sweden.

The Azzurrini team seemed nervous. An explosive press conference by Sturaro (banned for three games) did not help to relax though coach Gigi Di Biagio tried to protect his players. The arrival of senior head coach Antonio Conte also helped restore calm in the camp.

Italy were unlucky in their second match. They created many chances but the Portuguese goalkeeper and the bar denied them victory and left Italy in a trouble: they had to win and only win against England and hope that Sweden and Portugal would not draw their own last match.

None of the Azzurrini wanted to think the worst and all said: “We’ll do our best against England, then see what happens.”

Di Biagio showed audacity for this last game in selecting two strikers and his choice was soon vindicated with Italy 2-0 ahead after 26 minutes.

]In the second half the Italian team scored a third goal and for eight minutes, with Portugal winning the other group game, they were in both the semi-finals and Rio de Janeiro. Then, in the last minute, Sweden equalised and Italy woke up to reality.

Bardi, the Italian captain and goalkeeper, said after the last match: “I am young, I have to believe in fair play and in the honesty of the other people.”

Now is a time for reflection. The coach’s contract expires on June 30 and he does not know if he will still in charge on July 1.

** AIPS is the international sports journalists’ association with 10,000 members worldwide and is co-operating with UEFA in running a Young Reporters course at UEFA U21 EURO in the Czech Republic. More information: www.AIPSmedia.com

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