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Mancini on mission to complete Italy's rebirth

China Daily | Updated: 2021-07-08 09:05
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Italy players celebrate reaching the Euro 2020 final after overcoming Spain at Wembley Stadium in London on Tuesday. Chelsea midfielder Jorginho converted the decisive penalty to give Italy a 4-2 penalty shootout win after the sides finished 1-1 through extra time, with Federico Chiesa scoring for Italy and Alvaro Morata, who missed his spot-kick in the shootout, netting a late equalizer. REUTERS

Boss delights in defying expectations as reinvigorated Azzurri reach final

LONDON-Bouncing in a huddle on the Wembley Stadium field, roared on by thousands of fans, Italy's players savored the celebrations, soaking up the scenes they have been waiting so long to experience again.

Back in Rome, supporters packed into piazzas and descended on the ancient Colosseum, speeding past on motorbikes waving flags even as midnight was approaching once Spain had been beaten on Tuesday.

From England to Italy, it looked like title parties were in full flow. All that was missing was the trophy.

The Italians will have to come back on Sunday to Wembley to collect that and complete this renaissance of a great soccer nation in the European Championship final.

"Almost no one believed we could do it," Italy coach Roberto Mancini said. "And yet we are into a final."

The last major tournament-the 2018 World Cup-didn't even feature the Azzurri.

It was Spain which helped to deny them qualification for the first time in six decades. Winning the Euro 2020 semifinal on penalties felt like the latest redemption chapter from the despair of not being at the World Cup for the four-time champion.

In doing so, Mancini has banished old notions of dull, ultra-defensive Italian teams. This is a team captivating audiences with a thrilling determination to attack and entertain.

It's not been without maintaining a defensive solidity. Mancini can still turn to a 36-year-old veteran in Giorgio Chiellini, who has helped to extend the unbeaten run to 33 matches.

But then there is the new generation not scarred by the World Cup qualification failure-particularly 23-year-old forward Federico Chiesa, whose curling strike put Italy ahead in the 60th minute.

"The players did want to do something differently," Mancini said through a translator. "They did want to play a brand of football that people enjoy and thus far they have been able to do that."

Even by not having it all their own way all the time.

The group stage was a breeze. Turkey, touted as an outside challenger going into the tournament, was brushed aside 3-0. There were another three goals without reply against a Switzerland side that would go on to oust France. Wales was beaten 1-0 with many of the reserves deployed with qualification already settled.

The test of the team's resolve came on the first trip away from Rome to Wembley when extra time was required before beating Austria 2-1. Then came the threat of the world's top-ranked side but Belgium was also eliminated 2-1-this time within 90 minutes.

Spain posed new questions of the Italians, making it hard to get control of the ball with their passing moves at times frustrating the formidable central midfield pairing of Paris Saint-Germain's Marco Verratti and Chelsea's Jorginho.

"There are some games when you have to suffer, but we deserved to be here," Mancini said.

"We knew it was going to be tough. It wasn't easy, and Spain surprised us at the start by deciding to play without a striker.

"This group, however, is amazing. Everyone wants to win, but this group of players wanted to do something special and they just did that."

For the coach who vowed a "rebirth" after being hired in 2018, the mission seems to have been turbo-charged by the former Inter Milan and Manchester City boss.

"The players believed right from Day 1," Mancini said, "that we could produce something incredible."

Hero to zero

As for Spain, it was another tough night for Alvaro Morata, despite the Juventus striker (on loan from Atletico Madrid) getting on the scoresheet.

Fiercely criticized and dropped from the starting XI against Italy, Morata has faced all kinds of setbacks in this championship.

With one goal, he looked to have put that all aside.

Morata came off the bench on Tuesday, only seconds after Chiesa's 60th-minute opener, and netted the equalizer for his third goal at Euro 2020.

However, the 28-year-old went from hero to zero when Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma saved his penalty in the shootout. Moments later, Jorginho scored to send Italy through.

"This group deserved more, much more," Morata wrote on Instagram. "Like all of Spain, it was also my dream, our dream. I can only say that I am proud to have been part of this team. To those who have believed in us, THANK YOU. Soccer can be very tough at times. Long live Spain."

Spain coach Luis Enrique said the decision to drop Morata had to do with an injury.

"He (Morata) has an abductor issue. And it really says a lot about his personality that even despite that he wanted to take a penalty," Enrique said.

"He has gone through some tough times in this competition but he was brilliant. He really created a lot of uncertainty within the Italian ranks. He scored, of course, so he was excellent."

Agencies via Xinhua

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