Feature Photo: EPA / Alessio Marini
Italy, it’s reality-check time already. A lone goal by Krystian Bielik gave Poland an unexpected win over Luigi Di Biagio’s Azzurrini in the second match of Group A of the U-21 European Championship. Italy are now at risk of missing the train to the next stage of the tournament. Even beating Belgium next Saturday could not be enough to book a place in the Semifinals, which also qualify for the 2020 Olympic Tournament in Tokyo.
A true disappointment for coach Luigi Di Biagio, whose side dominated the match played in Bologna on Wednesday, but was punished by the very only chance created by the Poles. Italy saw a goal by Riccardo Orsolini disallowed by the VAR on grounds of offside, hit a post with a shot by Lorenzo Pellegrini, and eventually saw Niccolo’ Zaniolo scoring a yellow card just five minutes after being sent in – which will cause him to miss the decisive game against Belgium.
Di Biagio changed four elements in his formation versus the winning debut against Spain, deploying Claud Adjapong and Alessandro Bastoni in defense. On the front line, Riccardo Orsolini and Patrick Cutrone replaced Niccolo’ Zaniolo and Moise Kean. Juventus’ talent Kean was sent in by Di Biagio after half time, when Poland had already taken the lead, whereas Zaniolo replaced Adjapong with just nine minutes to go.
Italy started aggressive, pushed once again by the loud support from the Renato Dall’Ara Stadium fans, and created at least three clear scoring chances in the first 45 minutes. Federico Chiesa was stopped by Polish goalie Kamil Grabara, then captain Rolando Mandragora failed an easy chance from the center of the box. Gianluca Mancini’s header in the 33rd minute missed the target by just a few inches.
Then Poland put their heads ahead on their very first occasion: A free kick by Sampdoria’s Dawid Kownacki hit the Azzurrini’s wall, but Krystian Bielik was the fastest to pounce on the ball and beat Alex Meret with an accurate left-foot shot. The Italians reacted promptly, but Riccardo Orsolini’s immediate equalizer was frustrated by the VAR.
The second half saw the Azzurrini continuing to press hard, but with no different outcome. Federico Chiesa tested Kamil Grabara again, calling the opponent goalkeeper to a superb save to preserve his side’s lead. Moise Kean – who replaced Riccardo Orsolini due to a shoulder injury – added more sparkle to Italy’s offensive options.
30 minutes into the second half, Lorenzo Pellegrini hit the crossbar with a powerful shot – the clearest chance created by Di Biagio’s boys. Patrick Cutrone asked for a penalty in the 81st minute, but referee Aleksey Kulbakov was of a different opinion – just like a few minutes later, when he would wave a painful yellow card at Niccolo’ Zaniolo.
Italy have no other option than winning over already-eliminated Belgium on Saturday to continue hoping for the Semifinals and the Olympic ticket. Beating the Belgians could however still not be enough. Poland just need to tie against Spain to wrap the first place in the group. A one or two-goal margin win by Spain would qualify Italy. On the other hand, should the Spaniards beat Poland by more than two goals, it would be Tito de la Fuentes’ side to advance as first.
In any case, the Azzurrini would still have a chance to qualify as the best runner-up among the three tournament groups. But that would force them to wait and hope for a complicated combination of results to happen in the other group matches. A situation that seemed unthinkable only a few days ago, after Italy’s enthusiastic debut against Spain.
June 19, 2019 – U-21 European Championship 2019 Group A
ITALY U-21-POLAND U-21 0-1
SCORER: 40′ Bielik
|ITALY U-21 (4-3-3): Meret; Adjapong (81′ Zaniolo), Mancini, Bastoni, Dimarco; Barella, Mandragora (57′ Tonali), Pellegrini; Orsolini (46′ Kean), Cutrone, Chiesa (Audero, Montipò, Calabresi, Pezzella, Bonifazi, Bonazzoli, Romagna, Locatelli, Murgia) Coach: Di Biagio|
|POLAND U-21 (5-3-2): Grabara; Fila, Wieteska, Bielik, Bochniewicz, Pestka; Jagiello (55′ Michalak), Dziczek, Zurkowski; Kownacki (76′ Buksa), Szymanski (Lis, Loska, Placheta, Piotrowski, Swiderski, Wdowiak, Jonczy, Jozwiak, Tomczyk, Gumny) Coach: Michniewicz|
REFEREE: Kulbakov (Belarus)
NOTES: Yellow Cards: Zaniolo (I), Dziczek, Kownacki, Buska (P); Extra Time: 1st Half 2′, 2nd Half 4′