Italy hosted Spain in front of a raucous crowd in Bologna on Sunday as the U21 European Championships kicked off. This was always going to be a big match, as two of the tournaments favorites clashed in the gastronomic capital of the peninsula. With only the three group winners and top runner-up advancing to the knock out rounds, this one could make or break the Azzurrini’s tournament.
Luigi Di Biagio ran out a talented starting XI with plenty of senior side experience in the ranks. Roma’s Lorenzo Pellegrini started in midfield while Nicolò Zaniolo started at right wing. Unfortunately for the Azzurrini, Spain struck first on a lovely shot by Dani Ceballos in the ninth minute.
Things didn’t improve much for Italy as Spain controlled much of the first 30 minutes. It looked like the Spaniards were en route to teaching Italy another lesson in footballing, as they have so many times over the last decade; controlling 68% of the early possession.
That was until Federico Chiesa struck in the 36th minute. Chiesa did a great job to bring down a cross field ball on a dime. Then used his pace to beat a Spanish defender before catching the Spanish keeper cheating on a potential cross. Instead of crossing the ball, Chiesa unloaded a left-footed shot near post that beat the keeper. Poor goaltending but a lovely play from Chiesa.
The goal was against the run of play and turned out to be the catalyst for the Azzurrini to turn things around. From there on out the match was completely flipped on its head with the boys in blue controlling of the last hour of the match.
The one blemish the rest of the way for Italy was Zaniolo having to be stretchered off late in the first half with a head injury. The Roma man was railroaded by the Spainish keeper shortly before Chiesa’s goal and tried to continue. However, he went down late in the second half unable to continue and was substituted in the 42nd minute; a concussion looks likely.
The second half continued the same way the first ended with Italy in control. The midfield trio of Pellegrini, Rolando Mandragora, and Nicolò Barella began to stake its claim in the center of the park, breaking the Spanish domination.
Shortly after the hour mark a Patrick Cutrone for Moise Kean substitution paid almost instant dividends: Cutrone came on in the 61st minute and just three minutes later Italy scored when the Milan man held up a ball in the box that bounced around falling to Chiesa. The Viola winger promptly pounced on the loose ball and put it into the back of the net to secure his brace and give Italy its first lead of the match.
The Italians continued to control the game from there on out. Italy kept Spain at bay but the match wasn’t out of reach until Pellegrini finished off the Spaniards from the spot. The Roman was pulled down from behind after making a late run into the box; a foul which seemingly went unnoticed. However, moments later the referee was advised by the VAR officials to give it a second look.
After video review it was determined that Carlos Soler did indeed have a handful of Pellegrini’s shirt when he went down at the top of the box. Somewhat surprisingly, it was Pellegrini who stepped to the spot rather than Chiesa, but the Roma man mad no mistakes, looking off Spanish keeper Unai Simon and sliding home Italy’s third goal.
That third goal that secured the valuable three points for Italy, as Spain went out with little more than a whimper. In the end, Spain still out-possessed Italy 55-45, but it was the Azzurrini who found the goals and dictated the last 60 minutes of play.
The Azzurrini next play on Wednesday against Poland with the winner taking control of Group A. The Poles had their own come from behind win on Sunday against Belgium, winning 3-2. That means Italy and Poland are joint top of the group, while Spain and Belgium will meet hoping to stave off elimination. With its toughest group stage match out of the way, Italy will be favored to progress. If the Azzurrini carry over their second half form, they will be a tough task for whoever they play.