Spain, once again. The Furia Roja confirmed to be an absolute nemesis for the Azzurri – with a few notable exceptions – as they beat Roberto Mancini’s Italy 2-1 in a Nations League Semi Final played in Eschede on Thursday night.
After the first half ended 1-1, it was a late goal from substitute Joselu to make the difference between the two sides, bringing Spain to the Final in Rotterdam on Sunday against Croatia. The Azzurri, on the other hand, will play again in Eschede in a third-place playoff against the host country Netherlands.
Roberto Mancini’s side put together an encouraging performance in the first half as they answered with Ciro Immobile to Yeremy Pino’s opener after just three minutes. Davide Frattesi should have put Italy ahead but his winning effort was ruled offside.
Spain came back to the pitch with a more aggressive attitude and slowly gained control of the match, finding the decisive goal with just two minutes to go. It ended with the same outcome as two years ago, when Spain had beaten Italy 2-1 in the previous Nations League’s edition Semi Final.
Mancini’s setup was an unexpected one, as he lined up the Azzurri in a 3-5-1-1 fashion. Ahead of Gianluigi Donnarumma, Leonardo Bonucci, Rafael Toloi and Francesco Acerbi formed a back-three defense. Giovanni Di Lorenzo and Leonardo Spinazzola marshalled the two flanks, while Davide Frattesi was preferred to Marco Verratti to join Nicoló Barella and Jorginho at midfield. Galatasaray’s Nicoló Zaniolo played behind the lone striker Ciro Immobile.
The Azzurri, who donned a special white kit to celebrate their Football Association’s 125th birthday, suffered an early blow as their captain Bonucci had a nightmarish start. The Juventus captain committed two defensive blunders in a row, and Yeremy Pino took advantage of that to beat Donnarumma with a right-foot shot after just three minutes.
But Italy’s reaction was fast and convincing and produced an equalizer only four minutes later. Jorginho picked Nicoló Zaniolo in the middle of the box, his conclusion was blocked by Robin Le Normand with his hand. Not a great start for the French-born center back, who made his debut for la Furia Roja tonight.
From the penalty spot, Immobile made no mistake, breaking a scoring drought with the Azzurri that lasted since almost two years.
Italy showed the right attitude. They didn’t try to counter Spain’s ball possession, but rather tried to catch them by surprise on the counter, taking advantage of their defensive line’s slowness. Jorginho was on fire and, on 20 minutes, he served his second assist of the night, even though Frattesi’s beautiful finish was ruled offside.
Donnarumma saved from an Alvaro Morata shot from out of the box, and the first half ended with one goal each.
But all the good things shown by Italy during the first period vanished after the restart as Spain started to take control. Mancini changed both his wingers, sending in the Inter duo Federico Di Marco and Matteo Darmian, but it was the Furia Roja to be in control of the operations.
Soon after the restart, substitute Marco Asensio brilliantly serviced Morata in the middle of the Azzurri‘s box, and it took a superb save from Donnarumma to keep Italy afloat as the PSG’s gardien palmed away the Spaniard’s close-range conclusion.
There were more scares for the Azzurri when Donnarumma failed to block the ball from a corner kick, triggering Rodri’s acrobating conversion attempt. Good for him and for Italy that his overhead kick sailed off target.
Mancini replaced Immobile with Federico Chiesa, adding more depth to his side’s front line, but the most dangerous chance for Italy came once again from Frattesi. The Sassuolo midfielder fired the ball at Unai Simon from a Zaniolo cross from the left side, but the Spanish goalkeeper’s reflexes were as good as Donnarumma’s.
The game seemed destined to an extra time extension but Spain found the winning strike when there were just two minutes to go. A lucky shot perhaps, as Luis De La Fuente’s selection found the back of the net after Rodri’s shot from out of the box was deflected by two Azzurri players before bouncing into Joselu’s feet past the Italian defensive line.
The Espanyol striker, who had just set foot on the pitch, only had to tap the ball in and past Donnarumma from point blank range to award his side their second Nations League Final in a row.
For Roberto Mancini and Italy, on the other hand, their is still some work to do. The Azzurri coach didn’t look for excuses in his post match remarks: “Spain deserved to win even though their scored only in the latest stages of the game. We didn’t manage to do much, especially in the second half.”