After falling at the semi-final stage of the UEFA Nations League, hosts Italy reconvene with Belgium on Sunday, three months after their scintillating contest at Euro 2020.
Having let a two-goal lead slip to crash out against old foes France, the Belgians will contest third place in international football’s newest tournament against the faltering European champions.
Since their penalty shootout glory at Wembley in the summer, something of a hangover has befallen Italy in their subsequent matches; the latest of which was Wednesday’s disappointing defeat to Spain in the Nations League semi-finals.
The Azzurri’s cherished 37-game unbeaten run came to a definitive end at San Siro, as they crashed out to a side which particularly troubled them at the same stage of the Euros, before they squeezed through in a spot kick showdown.
Captain for the night in Milan, as the teams met again, defensive stalwart Leonardo Bonucci was sent off in the first half for two bookable offences – the second for an elbow on Sergio Busquets.
As Ferran Torres netted a double either side of Bonucci’s dismissal – on a ground where he struggled during his single season at AC Milan – the Italians were ultimately consigned to a playoff for third.
Also following two underwhelming World Cup qualifying draws and a regulation win against Lithuania – still leaving Roberto Mancini’s side in pole position to qualify automatically for Qatar 2022 – La Nazionale now travel to Turin, where they reprise one of their most memorable match-ups of recent years.
They must now react to a first defeat since losing to Portugal in the inaugural Nations League over three years ago – and also the first time Italy have lost a competitive game on home soil since 1999 – in an encounter with Belgium, who they edged out 2-1 in their Euro 2020 quarter-final back in July.
Though the chance to immediately add further silverware to their long-awaited European Championship trophy has now passed, a clash with one of their chief rivals for the global crown next year remains an intriguing prospect.
While Italy were outsiders from the moment their captain saw red in midweek, by contrast, Belgium seemed to be cruising into the Nations League final before a dramatic comeback from reigning world champions France.
Les Bleus full-back Theo Hernandez rifled home a spectacular 90th-minute winner, as the Red Devils let a two-goal advantage slip during a whirlwind display from the French during the second half.
A first senior international trophy seemed to be coming one step closer when Yannick Carrasco and Romelu Lukaku gave them a 2-0 lead with some clinical finishing, but Belgium were once again forced to settle for a shot at the bronze medal.
They have been ranked the world’s number one side for more than three years now, but remain the only nation to top the rankings without claiming a major championship, with time fast running out for the vaunted ‘golden generation’.
Roberto Martinez’s men entered this month having claimed three wins from three in World Cup qualifying in September – netting nine times and conceding just two in the process – so seem to have responded well to their previous disappointment.
Whether they can now get over the “mental wall” which Martinez believes obstructs them in the aftermath of Thursday’s gut-wrenching defeat – only the third from their last 32 games – still remains to be seen.
Italy Nations League form:
Italy form (all competitions):
Belgium Nations League form:
Belgium form (all competitions):
We say: Italy 1-0 Belgium
On Sunday, neither nation will be motivated beyond salvaging some pride, as they nurse hangovers from their respective midweek semi-final failures.
For that reason, both sides will feature changes, and Italy’s greater squad depth can help them edge out Belgium for a second time in a matter of months.