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Battle for Possession Will Be Key as Italy Takes on Spain in Euro 2020 Semis at Wembley

Mancini’s men look to prove they’re back to being a major player on the European stage by reaching their first major tournament final in nine years—and it may come down to who sees more of the ball.

Belgium v Italy - UEFA Euro 2020: Quarter-final Photo by Alex Grimm - UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images

Heading into Euro 2020, most Azzurri fans (including myself) would’ve considered reaching the quarterfinals a solid run and the semifinals an undeniable success for Italy. After all, less than three years ago, we witnessed one of the darkest days of calcio. Ever since that disastrous failed qualification for World Cup 2018, Roberto Mancini has been working to rebuild the Azzurri’s reputation as a footballing power. So, steps in the right direction with an improving, talented side would be viewed as positive.

That being said, now that we’re here it no longer feels that way. That’s because the Azzurri have been arguably the best team at Euro 2020; winning all five matches by scoring 11 and conceding just two goals—none of which have come from the run of play.

It’s funny how expectations can change over the course of a tournament. This Italy now has Azzurri fans believing that this could be the year that it all comes together for the nation’s second-ever European championship.

The Azzurri’s success may not be quite as unexpected as Denmark’s has been so far. After all, the Azzurri have a rich footballing tradition, fairly talented roster, and were considered one of the outsiders to lift the trophy when the tournament commenced last month. But their play since the group stage has transformed the Azzurri from dark horse to one of the favorites as the tournament has moved on.

And Friday’s statement win over #1 ranked Belgium has only strengthened the claim that Italy is back to being a European power. Prior to that, some pundits (yes, we’re pointing the finger at you Gary Neville) said that Italy was playing impressively against weak sides in Group A and would face defeat once it ran into a real side. Well, Belgium is as real of a side as they come and Italy passed that test with flying colors.

As a reward, the Azzurri have moved on to face Spain in the semifinals. This meeting will mark the fourth straight Euro tournament that the two sides will face off in the knockout rounds. This will also be the seventh time they meet at a Euro (the most of any opponents) and the ninth time at a major tournament (Euro/World Cup).

Italy vs. Spain: July 6th. 21:00 CET/3:00 EDT. Wembley Stadium, London, England.

With that kind of history, I guess it should be no surprise that these two sides would meet at some point in order for the Azzurri to attempt to rise back to the top of European football. After all, it was the Spanish who knocked Italy off the pedestal of world football by defeating them in Euro ‘08. That was the start of Spain’s reign as one of the greatest national sides of all time; winning two Euros and a World Cup in the process.

And even prior to the start of Spanish domination on the continent, Italy has had its hands full with the Spanish. The recent history (dating back to 1998) has been dominated by Spain. Italy has won only twice in its last 14 meetings with Spain, while the Spanish have won five times. Meanwhile, the all-time this series has been all square with each side winning 11 times in 37 matches.

The Azzurri triumphed in the last major tournament meeting in Euro 2016 when Antonio Conte led Italy to defeat La Roja 2-0 behind goals from Giorgio Chiellini and Graziano Pelle. That Azzurri victory came after falling to Spain in the 2012 final (4-0) and 2008 quarterfinals (0-0, 4-2 penalties).

In order to reach their tenth final all-time, the Azzurri will have to have to dig deep to defeat a Spanish side that may no longer have its golden generation but has grown into the tournament. So, let’s look at some of the things to watch for as the Azzurri look to win for the 10th time in their 12th semifinal at a major tournament all-time.

Keep An Eye On

The Midfield and Possession Battles

Italy v Wales - UEFA Euro 2020: Group A Photo by Emmanuele Ciancaglini/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

Many Italian sides of the past would’ve been more than happy to defend deep, absorb pressure, and hit out on the counter-attack in order to beat a side like Spain that enjoys knocking the ball around in possession. This Italian side no longer employs the dark art of catenaccio like it once did. Under Mancini’s tactics, this group is much more comfortable in possession.

In fact, this match features two of the three best sides in the tournament at controlling possession. Italy has been third-best with a 55.8% possession rate, but Spain, thanks to their patented tiki-taka style, has taken it to another level with an astounding 67.2% possession rate. And Mancini is well aware that conceding 60% possession or more is something Italy can ill-afford if they want to play their game.

In order to keep that number down, the Azzurri will have to work hard in their pressing game to win back possession early and win the midfield battles. That’s something they can do in large part because it has a midfield with world-class players Jorginho, Marco Verratti, and Nicolo Barella. That trio will be tasked with keeping the likes of Sergio Busquets, Koke, and Pedri in check.

The possession battle will be key and it’ll likely come down to which midfield can impose its will. Jorginho, Verratti, and Barella will have to be on their game if Italy has a shot at keeping Spain’s possession percentage to a reasonable number, allowing the Azzurri their own time on the ball to create scoring chances.

Can Emerson Adequately Replace Spinazzola?

Italy v Bosnia and Herzegovina - UEFA Euro 2020 Qualifier Photo by Claudio Villa/Getty Images

There’s no doubting the fact that Roma’s Leonardo Spinazzola has been one of the best players in all of Euro 2020. Unfortunately for Italy, his tournament was ended when he ruptured his Achilles tendon against Belgium in the quarterfinal victory over Belgium. It was a bitter pill to swallow considering just how much Spinazzola has brought to the table thus far.

In many ways, Spinazzola was able to operate as a de facto wing-back rather than conventional full-back when Italy was in possession thanks to the willingness of Giovanni Di Lorenzo to play a more stay-at-home game on the right flank. Di Lorenzo’s role shouldn’t change much against Spain, as Spinazzola’s replacement Emerson Palmieri is known as an offensive fullback. What remains to be seen is just how well Emerson can replace the attacking threat that Spinazzola brought to the table.

When weighing their stats per 90 minutes so far in this tournament, there isn’t a huge discrepancy in how often they touch (62.4 to 53.6 for Spinazzola) or carry the ball (42.1 to 38.2 Spinazzola). However, what is noticeable is how far they carry the ball in possession. Spinazzola has carried to the ball 288.1 yards per 90 to 127.3 for Emerson. Additionally, Spinazzola carries the ball progressively 9.29 times for an average of 195.7 yards per 90 versus Emerson’s 3.64 carries for 71.8 yards per 90.

And with all of that possession into the attacking third of the pitch, Spinazzola has contributed 4.05 shot-creating actions per 90 minutes. That’s the third-best rate among regulars for the Azzurri at this tournament.

Emerson has played much less than Spinazzola in this tournament, with those stats coming in one start against Wales and the final 12 minutes against Belgium after Spinazzola was injured. And it’s probably unrealistic for him to come anywhere close to Spinazzola’s numbers considering the form the Roma man was in. However, you’d have to think Emerson will have to press up the pitch with the ball more often for Italy to continue playing the way it has.

The Ciro Conundrum

Turkey vs Italy - EURO 2020 Photo by Ali Balikci/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

There’s no doubting that at club level Ciro Immobile has been the best Italian striker of his generation. The Lazio man has scored goals for fun at the Stadio Olimpico over the last six seasons. And it looked like he was going to do the same for the Azzurri—something he hasn’t done much of—when he scored in Italy’s first two matches against Turkey and Wales in his home stadium.

However, after being rested in the third group stage match, Immobile hasn’t had the same success in the knockout rounds against Austria or Belgium. In Italy’s last two matches, Immobile hasn’t put any of his six shots on target. And he was particularly poor against the Belgians in possession, losing possession 11 times through unsuccessful touches (7) and dispossessions (4). That number was equal to his lost possession through his first three starts combined. He also had no progressive carries compared to the 3.33 he averaged per match prior.

There’s no doubting that Immobile had a real stinker against Belgium. However, despite the calls from many supports to see him benched in favor of Torino’s Andrea Belotti, Immobile will likely start again.

With Spain looking to play more in possession than Italy’s previous opponents, Italy will likely have more opportunities to counterattack. That’s something that could play into Immobile’s hands. He has made a living at Lazio by running in behind opposing defenses and putting the ball in the back of the net. And he should have chances to do that in this one if Italy can catch Spain out in possession. Thus, how well Immobile takes his chances could be crucial in Italy’s likelihood of advancing.