That train just keeps on running. On a gripping night under the gloom of high-summer London skies it looked for a while as though Roberto Mancini’s Italy might have hit a dead stretch of track.
At Wembley Italy were dominated for the opening hour. Then they were dominated for the final half hour. They suffered, and ran, and suffered a little more. It was, once again, exhausting and also uplifting, the controlled intensity of a team playing right at the edge of its emotions.
And of course this semi-final went to penalties. This was always going to penalties. As we moved into extra time, as this became a game of lunges and twists, screaming muscles, heaving lungs, this was going to penalties. And somehow, Italy, outplayed at times by a peppy, tactically smart Spain, were always winning them when we got there.
Even before kick-off this had looked and sounded like an authentic European tournament game, right down to the colours, the flags, the vicarious thrill of a grand old rivalry. By the end it had become the kind of game the best tournaments revolve around, a meaty thing, thrillingly layered, a struggle to the final breath.
But somehow Italy were always winning the shootout, which isn’t a lottery or matter of chance, but a register of skill as well as will and conviction. At 3-2, with Spain fraying a little, there was even a funny moment as Jorginho strode up to take what might – could it, really? – be the decisive kick.
Lol, of course it was. Have you never seen him do this? So the game ended on a weirdly jaunty note, with the skip and the little nudge into the corner, and with the sense that for all Spain’s dominance at times, the thing that was always going to happen had come to pass.
The first half was a win for Luis Enrique. Spain opted to start without an orthodox striker, with Dani Olmo and Mikel Oyarzabal in a revolving false nine act. Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini looked bothered, supreme defensive technicians, but at that stage of their career where they seek out human contact, the warm embrace. For a while Spain’s shape created an awkward energy, the sense of something sharp tickling away at the ribs of that defensive unit.
The rest of the first half was dominated by the duel between Sergio Busquets and Nicoló Barella, a duel that was in itself entirely dominated by Busquets.
It took 16 minutes to get anywhere near that gangling old conductor. Busquets has faced that pressure. It is, let’s face it, the story of his career. Both teams here were playing on Busquets’ time.
With 50 minutes gone Italy had taken just 35% possession, and made half as many passes. Luis Enrique was winning this two-hander by almost every metric. Or was he?
It is hard in isolation to understand exactly what the special quality is that Mancini brings to this group. He isn’t known as a high-faluting technocrat or a great orator. Then, at moments like these, you see him on the touchline and think, OK, that’s it. There is just something in the profile, that wide, flat, glacial stare.
Mancini is just one of nature’s dukes. He projects a sense of something you didn’t know you’d been missing: Italianism, the reality of that storied old winning machine.
Mancini tinkered, but didn’t change much. And Italy produced their own razor edge. Let us linger for a moment on Federico Chiesa’s goal, the outstanding moment of the game. It came from a counterattack. The ball was funnelled down the left. It didn’t feel like a full defensive alert. The movement wasn’t quite in synch. Chiesa picked the ball up with two defenders between him and the goalkeeper.
He becomes a predator at moments like these, alone with a sliver of space and a picture of where to go. It took four fast-twitch touches, like a special move on some twanged plastic console. There were two quick shifts into space, then without a backlift the perfect flighted shot into the far corner.
As the Wembley net billowed Chiesa was already veering off, the seats erupting as they do at a goal you get to see emerging right from the foot, feeling that prickle in the ear, the rising excitement, the spike of joy as it blooms into life.
From there Spain showed spirit and no little skill to equalise through Álvaro Morata. Then came the penalties. And if feels right that Italy should reach the final of these Euros. They have been a dose of adrenaline, and an oddly moving spectacle at times.
This has been football as appassionato, in the musical sense – notes and combinations performed with an extreme and unrelenting emotion. It isn’t hard to see why this should feel so refreshing. The shared experience of the last 18 months has felt, at times, like an imitation of real life. Italy’s rawness, the conviction of the players, their pleasure in one another feels like a reminder of other things. It will be a pleasure to spend one more day in their company.