Italy went through the group stage like a rocket, with goals, exciting football, safe defense and a midline to make the most cynical sigh of the invigorating properties of a good pass. And whoever says that he was no longer doing the math, thinking how difficult it would be for the Italians to reach the final, or, for the more traumatized, what highly pragmatic team would the transalpines, the new champions of beautiful football, fall from sad and unfair, as always happens to those who reject the practicalities of modern football.
We wouldn’t expect, perhaps, it was that this team was almost Austria, a group of tough, tactically straight-forward, organized boys, but with no eye-popping talent (the exceptions will be Alaba and Sabitzer). What is certain is that it was from the friendly Alpine neighbors that the biggest opposition Italy has ever had in this European came, a real bath of reality for those who already seemed to have the crosswalk extended, and only a painful extension, in which the Italians scored twice and the Austrians one, takes Mancini’s team to a quarter-final where they will find the winner of the game between Belgium and Portugal.
The game’s anti-climate atmosphere started right off, well, on the kickoff. Those who expected a carousel from those three Italian midfielders found themselves seeing an Austria with a lot more ball and an Italy trying their luck in very inefficient counterattacks, thanks to a game to forget the front trio, Insigne, Immobile and Berardi, who accumulated bad decisions and random shots.
Even so, the first chances were for the Italians, first on 16′, with a first shot by Barella from the edge of the area, which Bachmann defended with his foot, and then on 32′, at a time when Italy already had more ball. and Immobile tried from the middle of the street what looked like a balloon condemned to the bench but ended up in Bachmann’s goal bar.
With everything chewed up in midfield – Verratti is wonderful, holds the ball like no one else, but he doesn’t have Locatelli’s vertigo, for better or for worse – Italy showed little. The Group A winners didn’t seem to find a solution to Austria’s well-organized defence, which closed all lanes in the final third, limiting itself to endless ball circulations.
In the 2nd half, Austria got back on track and Italy had a lot less ball than expected. And it wasn’t with particular surprise that the ball was seen entering Donnarumma’s goal, a scare that only ended when it was realized that Arnautovic was offside.
With the entry of Pessina and Locatelli into midfield, there were slight improvements, but it would be the replacement of Berardi by Chiesa, 84 minutes in – and made 84 minutes late – turning the game definitively to the side of the favorites Italians. And, for that, it was necessary to reach the extension.
With the void at the end of the 90′, there came the first extra time of this European and it didn’t take long for Chiesa to confirm what seems more or less evident: that he should start in this team. On 95′, Locatelli put a vertical pass on Spinazzola, who raised his head and saw the Juventus player alone on the right. The ball reached him, the reception was difficult, but Chiesa, with class, pushed Laimer out of the way and launched a javelin with his left foot that finally shook the marker.
The first 15 minutes of extra time were all Italy and on 105′ came the 2-0, a goal by Pessina, a boy called at the last minute for the squad, saying yes to an insistence move by Belotti in the Austrian area.
It’s all over, we all thought, the tired air of the Austrian players seemed to say that, but inside, in the place we couldn’t see, they were telling us not so fast. The players just switched fields for Austria to score: Donnarumma saved the first, with a great save, Sabitzer wasted the second, with a shot in front of the goal that went to Big Ben, and the third happened, with Sasa Kalajdzic sticking his head into a corner and sending the ball through the eye of the needle through a series of opposing players.
And from then on, the game was broken, despair entered and Italy had to grind its teeth to survive. The final whistle was followed by faces of relief, only after joy. Italy was saved, but it took a brave hose of Austrian neorealism that it would certainly not have expected.