With its back against the wall, Italy’s U21 squad came out to play in front of a raucous crowd at the Mapei Stadium. The Azzurrini had their first real good chance when Nicolò Barella headed a perfect Giuseppe Pezzella cross wide of goal in the seventh minute. However, Belgium showed that despite having already been eliminated that they wouldn’t be a walkover for Italy. The Red Devils had a great opportunity just minutes later when Dodi Lukebakio got behind the Italian defense; Alex Meret was up to the task though and stoned the Belgian striker.
From there the Belgians began to find their footing a bit despite Italy having more than 60% of possession and a few more chances that went wide of goal in the first twenty minutes. Italy were awarded a free kick in the 23rd minute that Pellegrini put wide from distance leaving the Azzurrini without a shot on target to that point.
Pellegrini continued where he left off after the first two matches, again proving to be Italy’s most consistent performer; picking out lovely passes and drawing free kicks. However, despite controlling 68% possession as the match wore into the 40th minute, the Azzurrini still couldn’t put one on target. The parallels to last match against Poland were striking.
Tempers flared a bit in the 41st minute when Belgium were denied a penalty appeal, but Federico Chiesa accidentally stepped on the hand of Alexis Saelemaekers as he stumbled to the ground. Once play resumed Italy finally found the goal it desperately needed.
Pellegrini headed a ball down to Barella, who struck Italy’s first shot on target. The initial shot was saved by the Belgian keeper, but fell kindly to Barella who made no mistake the second time. Italy led 1-0 at half.
With the momentum of its late goal and knowing that goal differential could prove the difference between the semifinals and elimination, Italy again was the aggressor to open the second half. It would take just under eight minutes for Italy to double its advantage when Patrick Cutrone buried a Pellegrini cross with a lovely standing header. Credit to Pezzella who did a great job keeping the ball in play on the end line to keep play alive.
Italy continued to be the aggressor, although Belgium proved they wouldn’t go down without a fight. Italy had more chances around the 65th minute when Manuel Locatelli put one just wide before Rolando Mandragora and Cutrone were stopped by Ortwin de Wolf. Di Biagio made his first change bringing on Sandro Tonali for Locatelli in the 70th minute.
Italy continued to try and run up the scoreline, instead just the opposite happened when Belgium’s youngest player, Yari Verschaeren, struck in the 79th minute. Italy’s lead was cut to 2-1.
Right after the goal Pellergini was subbed off for Federico Bonazzoli, who almost immediately put a shot on target. Belgium began to play its way back into the game a bit late on, limiting Italy’s chances. However, the Italians had a golden opportunity in the 86th when Gianluca Mancini put a Tonali corner off the post.
It looked like Italy would be stuck on two goals in this one. Then Chiesa happened. Tonali played Chiesa in on a lovely through ball which the Viola man finished with a lovely shot across the face of goal into the upper 90. VAR reviewed the goal but Chiesa was on by a hair. Italy led 3-1, which is how it would end.
With Spain hammering Poland 5-0, all three sides finished level on six points in Group A. By virtue of head-to-head goal differential between the three, Spain wins Group A; leaving Italy second. Now the Azzurrini must play the waiting game in hopes that they will finish with the best record among second place finishers. Di Biagio’s side finished with a +3 goal differential.
The biggest threat to Italy being eliminated looks to be in Group C when France and Romania square off on Monday. Both sides are on six points and a draw would doom the Azzurrini. Italy will hope for the best and pray that it won’t be left ruing its missed opportunities against Poland. It’s out of the Azzurrini’s hands now and all they can do is watch and wait.