The Azzurrini did their job, but their fate doesn’t depend on them anymore. Luigi Di Biagio’s Under-21 selection defeated 3-1 an already-eliminated Belgian side on Saturday in Reggio Emilia, but Spain’s simultaneous 5-0 routing of Poland qualified the young Furias Rojas as first from Group A of the U-21 European Championship.
Italy still have a possibility to sneak into the Semifinals as best runner-up among the three groups. However, chances for a favorable combination of results in the remaining games from the other pools are objectively small. A draw between Romania and France on Monday would qualify both sides from Group C and leave Di Biagio’s Azzurrini with empty hands and a ton of regrets, as the home-hosted tournament also offers the only chance to qualify for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
The Italian side indeed risks paying hard for an isolated a loss of concentration, which resulted in Krystian Bielik’s lone goal and Italy’s defeat to Poland and neutralized the effect of their debut win against the Spanish side – an outcome whose painfulness only increased last night, seeing how easily the Poles flaked apart at the hands of Tito de la Fuentes’ Spain.
It was a turbulent pre-matchday at the Italian headquarters, with coach Di Biagio deciding to punish strikers Niccolo’ Zaniolo and Moise Kean for arriving late to a morning training session. “It was no big deal,” the manager said, “but we are a group and rules must be respected.” The decision had no immediate consequence for Zaniolo, who would have missed the game with Belgium in any case after a double yellow earned him a one-match ban.
Moise Kean, on the other hand, was supposed to be part of the offensive trident together with Federico Chiesa and Patrick Cutrone, and the disciplinary sanction forced Di Biagio to move midfielder Lorenzo Pellegrini on the left front line to take his place, lining up Sassuolo’s Thomas Locatelli to cover Pellegrini’s spot.
The first chance of the game was expectedly for Italy, with Niccolo’ Barella’s diving header from a cross by Giuseppe Pezzella missing the target by a few inches. Belgium replied promptly however, and called Alex Meret to a difficult save on a shot by midfielder Dodi Lukebakio.
The Azzurrini seemed scared and showed difficulties in creating more offensive chances, only managing to break the balance one minute before half time. Giuseppe Pezzella found Niccolo’ Barella again on the far post, his volley was parried back by the Belgian goalie, but Cagliari’s playmaker was fast to respond with an accurate left-foot shot for Italy’s 1-0.
There was not much to celebrate however, as meanwhile in Bologna Spain were already leading 3-0 over Poland – a three-goal victory being exactly what the Spaniards needed to win the group on goal difference.
Italy still needed to cash as many goals as possible in order to increase their chances of grabbing the best runner-up spot, and Patrick Cutrone answered the call in the 53rd minute with a nice header to put his stamp on proceedings for the first time in the tournament.
News from Renato Dall’Ara Stadium in Bologna got worse as Dani Ceballos scored the fourth for Spain, and the Azzurrini’s consequent disappointment coincided with Yari Verschaeren’s beautiful curl which halved Belgium’s gap and evoked the shadow of a potential draw.
Gianluca Mancini hitting the post with a long-range rocket looked like another sinister omen, but one minute before full time Federico Chiesa (more nervous than usual, pardoned by the VAR when he stomped with his foot on an opponent’s hand during the first half…) made it three for Italy, and gave a more positive outlook to their goal difference.
So what happens now?
A biscotto between France and Romania would automatically mean the end of Italy’s Olympic dream, but even a three-goal margin win by either Denmark or Austria in Group B (less probable, but not impossible…) would push the Azzurrini out.
If Romania win, Italy snatch the best runner-up spot, and thank-you-very-much to Mirel Radoi’s selection. Conversely, if the French were to beat to Carpathian, they would need to do it with at least a three-goal margin in order to preserve Italy’s goal difference advantage.
There are enough combinations to give any football fan who doesn’t have a major in mathematics a good headache, in a tournament which has seen an impressive 54 goals scored so far in just 14 games. As for the Italians, who would in any case win the consolation prize for staging the most entertaining edition ever of the U-21 Euro championship, they can now only wait. And pray.
June 22, 2019 – U-21 European Championship 2019 Group A
BELGIUM U-21-ITALY U-21 1-3
SCORERS: 44′ Barella (I), 53′ Cutrone (I), 79′ Verschaeren (B), 89′ Chiesa (I)
|BELGIUM U-21 (4-4-2): De Wolf; Cools, Bushiri, Bornauw, Cobbaut; Bastien (59′ Mangala), Heynen, Schrijvers, Omeonga (59′ Verschaeren); Saelemaekers (74′ Mbenza), Lukebakio (Jackers, Teunckens, De Norre, Leya Iseka, De Sart, Schryvers, Amuzu, Wouters) Coach: Walem|
|ITALY U-21 (4-2-3-1): Meret; Calabresi, Mancini, Bastoni, Pezzella; Barella (90′ Dimarco), Mandragora; Chiesa, Locatelli (72′ Tonali), Pellegrini (79′ Bonazzoli); Cutrone (Audero, Montipò, Bonifazi, Orsolini, Adjapong, Romagna, Kean, Murgia) Coach: Di Biagio|
REFEREE: Jovanovic (Serbia)
NOTES: Yellow Cards: Saelemaekers, Cools, Bushiri, Mangala, Verschaeren (B), Locatelli, Pezzella, Mancini (I)