KEIR RADNEDGE REPORTING —- Italy, champions of Europe only once, upset the pride of Belgium, the world’s No1-ranked nation, to reach the semi-finals of 2020 in Munich.
First-half goals from Nicolo Barella and Lorenzo Insigne plus the brilliance of goalkeeper Donnarumma saw them emerge triumphant by 2-1 from an end-to-end quarter-final. They will play historic rivals Spain in Tuesday’s semi-final at Wembley.
The match was magnificent end-to-end entertainment but Roberto Mancini’s Italians always appeared to hold a slight edge over the Red Devils. They have been the most dynamic team at these finals with more outstanding individuals than anyone else.
Italy had an early ‘goal’ by Leonardo Bonucci ruled out for offside and then it was only the brilliance of goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma, bound for Paris Saint-Germain after the finals, which kept them in the game.
The 22-year-old made fine saves from Kevin de Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku to present Italy with the platform from which Barella shot them ahead in the 31st minute.
Belgium were careless emerging from defence, Marco Verratti stole the ball and provided Barella with the opportunity to escape Thorgan Hazard and rifle his shot beyond Thibaut Courtois and into the far corner.
Thirteen unlucky minutes later for Belgium and they were two goals down. This time their midfield and defenders allowed Insigne to burst forward from halfway then cut inside before firing beyond Courtois.
Belgium set up a nervy second half by pulling a goal back almost on half-time. Teenage winger Jeremy Doku escaped down the left and was pushed to the ground by Di Lorenzo.
Slovene referee Slavko Vincic had no hesitation pointing to the penalty spot and Lukaku, after the standard – and vain – Italian protests finally beat Donnuarumma with his 64th goal in 98 international appearances.
The Belgians pressed forward ever more insistently in the second half and Italy suffered a major blow when Leonardo Spinazzola, probably the tournament’s most outstanding leftback, was forced out of the game – and probably the tournament – by an achilles tendon tear.
Belgium lost a couple of opportunities in goalmouth scrambles and Doku abandoned his left wing to dart across the face of the penalty box before firing over the bar.
Italy, wise as ever in the dark arts, pulled all the old tricks to run the clock down and were eventually rewarded with a return to Wembley, where they defeated Austria in the round of 16.
Roberto Mancini, Italy coach: “I don’t think we suffered too much at any moment of the game. To beat a team like Belgium, you need a great performance from everybody and that is exactly what happened today.”
Lorenzo Insigne, Italy forward: “I think every single player in the team played an incredible game tonight. I always try that shot, in games and in training. I’m happy it went in. It was a great goal but I repeat, we all won together tonight.”
Kevin De Bruyne, Belgium midfielder: “I think we tried everything to win this match. They scored a fantastic goal, but the first one may have been a mistake on our part. They had more possession and the ball didn’t go in for us, which is a shame. Getting eliminated is always a disappointment.”
Thibaut Courtois, Belgium goalkeeper: “This hits hard, but we knew it was going to be a tough game. We had two opportunities, but their keeper made a good save and I think we gave the first goal away a bit too easily. It really could have gone either way, but Italy deserved to win here.”
Belgium: Courtois – Alderweireld, Vermaelen, Vertonghen – Meunier (Chadli 69, Praet 73), Witsel, Tielemans (Mertens 69), T. Hazard – De Bruyne, Lukaku, Doku.
Italy: Donnarumma – Di Lorenzo, Bonucci, Chiellini, Spinazzola (Emerson 79) – Barella, Jorginho, Verratti (Cristante 74) – Chiesa (Tolói 90+1), Immobile (Belotti 74), Insigne (Berardi 79).
Referee: Vincic (Sna).