KEIR RADNEDGE at WEMBLEY —– Italy, for all the power and prestige of its football, have not won the European Championship since its early days in 1968 – and even then they needed the toss of a coin in the semi-final and a replayed final on home soil.
Perhaps, after so long, this will be their year again. At last. They conceded their first goal in more than 19 hours, were taken to extra-time by battling Austria but held their nerve magnificently to win their round of 16 thriller by 2-1 to reach the quarter-finals of Euro 2020.
Yet the fans whose cheers swirled around a quarter-full Wembley will have started to have their doubts before substitutes Federico Chiesa and Matteo Pessina broke the deadlock in extra-time and set an Azzurri record of 31 games undefeated..
Austria had pulled one back through Sasa Kalajdzic but it was much too late in a frenetic finale.
Italy’s initial football against unfancied Austria at Wembley had vindicated their status as favourites after winning all three group games.
After all, the last time Austria had reached the knockout stage of a major tournament was the World Cup in 1954, before the Euro had even been created.
They began with aggressive intent, so aggressive that Marco Arnautovic was booked by English referee Anthony Taylor in the very first minute for a mistimed tackle. But the rest of the first half belonged to the Azzurri.
Leonardo Spinazzola, finest leftback in the tournament, sprinted clear on the left in the 10th but shot wastefully wide; Nicolo Barella saw a shot saved by Daniel Bachmann’s outstretched leg; then Barella quivered the keeper’s right-hand post with a 30-metre drive.
By now Italy had gone to three at the back and pushed Spinazzola up to centre-forward. The ploy almost paid off. In the 41st minute he had a low effort fumbled wide for a a corner by Bachmann.
Austria, working like Trojans, somehow managed to hold the line until halftime. That work was nearly rewarded with two half-chances in the opening minutes of the second half.
First Arnautovic ran away on his own but, lacking support, shot hopelessly wide. Then captain David Alaba skimmed the bar with a free kick after Christoph Baumgartner had been brought down on the edge of the penalty box.
Italy were not moving anything like as smoothly or sweetly as in the first half and Austria began to gain in confidence.
Marcel Sabitzer had a drive deflected wide for a corner, Arnautovic forced a diving save from Gianluigi Donnarumma and then had a headed goal disallowed by VAR for offside.
This was not going to plan. Italy did not manage a second-half effort on target before referee Taylor sent the duel into extra time.
Five minutes after the restart so Chiesa, a second-half replacement for Berardi, found space wide on the right and thrashed his angled shot beyond Bachmann. Ten minutes later, just before the break, Belotti held off the Austrian defence and Pessina, on for Barella, fired home.
All over? Not yet. With six minutes remaining Austria’s own substitute, Kalajdzic, dived at the near post to head home a corner from Louis Schaub. Just not quite enough for Austria – but certainly more than enough to give Italy a fright.
Matteo Pessina, Italy midfielder: “I am still trying to take in my goal against Wales, so imagine how this one feels. I will remember it for the rest of my career. In this team everybody can score and this is our main strength – we are a great group.”
Leonardo Spinazzola, Italy defender: “I’m happy with the victory – I think we played as a real team tonight. We defended all together when we needed to. After 90 minutes, we said that we just had to improve the quality of the final passes and finally the goals arrived in extra time.”
David Alaba, Austria captain: “It’s not easy to put that into words. We can be proud of ourselves, Austria can be proud of us. We gave everything but in the end we weren’t rewarded for our performance. That’s really tough to take.”
Sasa Kalajdzic, Austria forward: “I think the whole of Austria can be proud of this team. It came down to small things that decided the game. My goal was great – I don’t think my head has ever been so close to the ground.”
Austria: Bachmann – Lainer (Trimmel 114), Dragović, Hinteregger, Alaba – Laimer (Ilsanker 114), Grillitsch (Schaub 106), X. Schlager (Gregoritsch 106) – Sabitzer, Baumgartner (Schöpf 90) – Arnautović (Kalajdzic 97).
Referee: Taylor (Eng).