Italy, anointed by many the best team at these European Championships, survived an almighty scare against Austria at Wembley last night to scrape through to the last eight. Roberto Mancini, the king of cool, had begun to take on rather a dishevelled look by the time the final whistle at the end of extra time delivered his team from the teeth of what would have been the biggest shock of the tournament so far.
The statistics will tell you that this was the game when Italy recorded their 31st game without defeat and beat an 82-year-old national record in the process but they will not tell you that they came within inches of being eliminated from the tournament as Austria ran them ragged in the second half of normal time. Italy and Mancini were desperately grateful for a VAR reprieve after Austria thought they had scored with a header from the superb Marko Arnautovic.
Given a second chance, they seized it in the first period of extra time when substitutes Federico Chiesa and Matteo Pessina scored in quick succession to gain the advantage.
A relieved Italy celebrate with their fans after a dramatic extra time that shredded nerves
Strikes from Federico Chiesa and Matteo Pessina put Italy 2-0 up before Sasa Kalajdzic’s strike
Even then, Austria were not finished. Sasa Kalajdzic scored with a near-post header from a corner seven minutes from the end of extra time to set up a nervy finish for the Azzurri and their supporters. It was the first goal Italy had conceded in more than 19 hours of play.
Austria have not beaten Italy for 61 years and it may be a long, long time before they get as close as this again. They deserved more for their efforts. This scratchy 2-1 victory means Italy will play either Belgium or Portugal in Munich on Friday for a place in the semi-finals.
By going the first 88 minutes of the match without conceding a goal, Italy also broke their men’s international record of 1142 minutes without conceding a goal, which was ended by Emmanuel Sanon of Haiti at the 1974 World Cup.
The last man to score against them before Kalajdzic was Donny van de Beek, who breached their defence for the Netherlands in a 1-1 draw in the Nations League back in October. Amid the statistics, though, this performance may prompt a recalibration of their prospects of lifting the trophy next month.
Everything had felt right about Italy’s prospects coming into this game. Their progress through the group stage had been flawlessly impressive. Until this summer, they had never scored more than two goals in a single European Championship match but in this tournament, they beat Turkey and Switzerland 3-0 and dispatched Wales with a much-changed team.
Mancini had got the mood right, too. An unused squad member during Italia 90, Mancini is doing his best to include everyone in this Azzurri adventure. In the last minute of the win over Wales, he brought on second-choice goalkeeper Salvatore Sirigu for his first appearance at the tournament. It recalled the moment Enzo Bearzot introduced the ageing Franco Causio in the 89th minute of the 1982 World Cup Final with Italy on the brink of victory. It is hard not to warm to the Italy that Mancini has built here.
The game, in front a crowd dominated by Italy fans, had started at a high tempo. Italy quickly established their superiority but Austria gave notice they had not come to defend and soak up pressure. They were robust in the tackle and swift to counter but it was still Mancini’s side that caught the eye. They began where they had left off in the group games.
Marco Verratti and Jorginho dominated midfield with short, astute passing and prompting and on the left flank, Leonardo Spinazzola continued to play as a force of nature, hurtling down the wing, creating a series of openings. Nearly 20 minutes into the match, one of his crosses found Nicolo Barella 15 yards out but his first-time shot was kicked away by the outstretched leg of Daniel Bachmann.
Verratti freed Lorenzo Insigne for a run at the retreating Austria defence but when Insigne tried to curl it into the corner, Bachmann dived to smother it. Austria still looked sharp, though. Marko Arnautovic raced on to a quick ball over the top and with Gianluigi Donnarumma back-pedalling to make his ground, Arnautovic lashed his shot just over the bar.
Austria carried a threat. They had an edge. And sometimes, they unsettled the Italy defence with the pace and the conviction of their breakaways. They had beaten North Macedonia and Ukraine in the group stage to book their first appearance in the knock-out stages of a major tournament since the 1954 World Cup, when they got to the semi-finals. They were determined not to disappear without a trace.
Italy did not relent, though. After half an hour, Ciro Immobile picked up the ball on the edge of the Austria area and took a couple of steps forward unchallenged. He took advantage of the space being offered him and unleashed a dipping shot that beat Bachmann and cannoned off the outside of his right-hand post. Italy’s movement, the way Immobile and Insigne made space and the way Verratti was alive to their runs, was frighteningly good.
The pace of the game did not relent at the start of the second half. Arnautovic pounced on a mistake by Leonardo Bonucci near the half way line and twisted and turned his man mercilessly as he ran at him. He sat one of the Italian defenders down as he tried desperately to make space but he could only slice his shot wide.
Austria threatened again within a minute. This time, Giovanni di Lorenzo brought down Christoph Baumgartner a yard outside the Italy box and David Alaba, who had had a quiet game, lined up the free kick. Many expected a thunderbolt and the Italy wall jostled and fidgeted but Alaba went for subtlety instead and lifted a delicate effort inches over the bar.
Just after an hour, Austria went close again. Marcel Sabitzer fired in a shot from the edge of the area and it took a thick deflection off the leg of Bonucci. Donnarumma was committed to the dive but the ball bounced over him and just wide. It was the last reprieve. Or it seemed to be.
Midway through the half, Austria seemed to have scored the goal their play had deserved. Alaba leapt at the back post to nod the ball across goal after a deep cross and Arnautovic rose to head it past Donnarumma and in off the underside of the bar. Austria’s celebrations were uproarious but they did not last. The goal was ruled out by VAR for offside against Arnautovic.
It was only seven minutes from the end of normal time when Italy finally fashioned their first chance of the second half. Inevitably, it came from an overlap by Spinazzola but when he floated a cross to the back post, Domenico Berardi tried to hook it in with an overhead kick and sliced it horribly wide.
Maybe Italy felt they had been given a second chance but they emerged for extra time with more purpose and within five minutes they were ahead. Chiesa peeled away at the back post and controlled a high bouncing ball on his chest. As it dropped, he cut inside and smashed it past Bachmann into the net. Pessina put the game beyond reach soon after even though Kalajdzic’s header made the closing minutes desperately tense.