Barella and Insigne break Belgium to send Italy through to semi-final | Euro 2020

Farewell then, to Belgium’s golden generation, who perhaps were doomed to futility as soon as they’d been burdened with the name. Who kno...


Farewell then, to Belgium’s golden generation, who perhaps were doomed to futility as soon as they’d been burdened with the name. Who knows what they might have been achieved if they hadn’t wasted so much time under the management of Marc Wilmots. At least with Roberto Martínez there has been the sense of them groping towards something like their potential. And they’ll always have Kazan, and one of the great World Cup performances, beating Brazil in a World Cup quarter-final.

The likes of Kevin De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku, Youri Tielemans and one or more Hazards still have more to give, and there is great promise in Jérémy Doku, but Vincent Kompany, Marouane Fellaini and Radja Nainggolan had gone already and nine outfielders in this squad are over 30. A wholesale clear-out, especially at the back is needed. But when all what remained was the fall, they fell gallantly, mounting a great late surge that proved this Italy can defend as well as attack, and produced probably the highest quality game of the tournament so far.

Whatever question is asked of this Italy side, it seems to answer. In the first half they had shown their attacking abilities; in the second they showed that the defensive arts, noble and more ambiguous, have not been banished by Robert Mancini’s new broom. “At the final whistle it was an immense joy,” said the goalkeeper Gianlugi Donnarumma. “We suffered together to achieve this.”

They can attack, they can defend, and now they face Spain in the semi-final. The next question is whether they can do it without Leonardo Spinazzola. The attacking Roma left-back has been one of Italy’s outstanding players so far, but he slipped in the second half when chasing Thorgan Hazard, and went down with what appeared to be a serious achilles injury. It seems extremely unlikely he will be fit for the semi-final.

Belgium, initially, had been content to sit deep rather than risk balls being played in behind a back three whose total age was 101 (although their average age was still less than that of Italy’s pairing; the mean central defender in this game was a 34 year old with 108 caps). That meant out of possession that Lukaku was often alone as the front man, with De Bruyne and Doku behind him. In possession, though, as had occasionally happened in the last round, Belgium attempted something similar to what they had done in beating Brazil in the World Cup quarter-final, with Lukaku pulling out to the left and De Bruyne moving through the middle: a false false nine, perhaps.

There were times when it felt like a strange kind of role play: Belgium dropping off and looking to strike on the break like the Italy of old, while Italy played largely in the Belgian half, playing the sort of possession-based proactive football that was supposed to characterise Belgium’s golden generation. If the World Cup was that group of Belgian players drinking in the last-chance saloon, these delayed Euros feel like an attempt by a determined core to keep the party going, even if that means cans in the alley after last orders have been called.

Playing on the break suits them – twice Donnarumma made fine saves to his right to thwart breaks involving De Bruyne and Lukaku – but there comes a point at which a creaking old defence can’t be protected simply by shifting their position 10 yards deeper. The three veterans may have defended doughtily against a barrage of crosses against Portugal but the 13th-minute effort Leonardo Bonucci had ruled out for offside was a warning.

Sure enough, another free-kick lifted into the box after 31 minutes caused chaos. Thomas Vermaelen, in attempting to retain possession, poked his clearance limply into a central area about 30 yards from goal, where it was pinched by MarcoVerratti who fed Nicolò Barella. Lorenzo Insigne soon added a second, taking advantage of a slowly retreating to defence to smash a shot into the top corner.

The temptation at that stage was to start preparing the obsequies for Belgium, but a moment of charity from the Slovenian referee Slavko Vincic who decided Giovanni Lorenzo’s little shove on Doku in the final minute of the first half was enough to award a penalty. Lukaku, of course, converted.

That gave the golden generation 45 minutes to keep hopes alive fir another game. Doku, all whirring intent and flailing limbs, like a marionette in a hurricane, is a very different sort of player to De Bruyne and Lukaku, but the contrast works well. It was his initial burst that worked a fine position for De Bruyne just after the hour. The Manchester City forward drove his low cross just in front of the retreating Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini and Lukaku seemed certain to score. But stretching a little he scuffed his contact slightly, jabbing the ball into the ground and up into the thigh of Spinazzola from where it ricocheted just beyond his agonised second swipe and out for a corner.

And with that it was done. There were other chances, balls pinged across the box, shots blocked, efforts flashing over, but that was the one key chance; after that, Belgium knew it wasn’t their day, that the golden generation would remain forever unfulfilled.

For this Italian generation, fulfilment could come very soon. The other doubt about Mancini’s side was that in its 32-game unbeaten run it hadn’t beaten a side in the top 15 of the Fifa rankings. It has now.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Barella and Insigne break Belgium to send Italy through to semi-final | Euro 2020
Barella and Insigne break Belgium to send Italy through to semi-final | Euro 2020
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