Two continental giants convene under the Wembley arch on Tuesday, as Italy clash with old foes Spain in the Euro 2020 semi-finals.
Reprising the one-sided 2012 final between the nations, both sides are intent on booking a place in the deciding game of this year’s action-packed championship.
Following their enthralling quarter-final win over Belgium in Munich, an inspired Italy squad return to London this week to take on one of their oldest rivals, who they first met at the 1920 Olympics.
Nicolo Barella’s sixth international goal – his nation have won every match in which he has scored – and an unstoppable Lorenzo Insigne strike against the Belgians helped the Azzurri stretch their record-breaking unbeaten run to 32 games, booking a hard-won place in the final four.
Demonstrating their traditional defensive solidity to complement the typically fluent attacking play which has become Italy’s trademark under Roberto Mancini, veteran Juventus pair Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini were able to largely mute the threat posed by Romelu Lukaku, while Leonardo Spinazzola prevented Belgium’s star striker from scoring with a crucial goal-line clearance in the second half – before pulling up injured late on.
That win served to set yet another record for an impressive Italian side, as they became the first nation to win 15 consecutive matches in European competition – including tournaments and qualifying – and only the fourth to win five European Championship finals fixtures in a row.
In all, La Nazionale have emerged victorious from each of their last 13 matches and their last defeat came as far back as September 2018, against Portugal. Though now a distant memory, that loss arrived while the scars of failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup were still yet to heal.
Since then, though, something of a rebirth has seen their manager sift through a number of personnel options, before settling on a relatively youthful, high-energy selection aided by some wise old heads in defence.
Before the knockout stage, Italy had won each of their games in Group A, and before being taken to extra time by Austria they had passed 1000 minutes without conceding. In attack, meanwhile, scoring 11 times at these Euros represents their best tournament tally since firing in 12 to win the 2006 World Cup; building hopes that they can now lift the trophy for the first time since triumphing on home soil in 1968.
While Italy have been runners-up twice in the intervening years – in 2000 and then 2012, when they were comprehensively beaten by Spain – their opponents on Tuesday are bidding to win the Euros for the fourth time, which would make them the most successful nation in the competition’s history.
Having scraped through the group stage and the first two knockout rounds, La Roja are intent on passing Germany’s total of three wins, and each time they have previously won their quarter-final they have gone on to lift the trophy.
It has been a bumpy ride for Luis Enrique’s inconsistent team so far, and like favourites France before them, they were forced to penalties by a well-drilled Switzerland side at the weekend.
A second successive draining encounter – after the thrilling extra-time win over Croatia in the last 16 – saw progress sealed only after goalkeeper Unai Simon saved from both Fabian Schar and Manuel Akanji, before young Ruben Vargas blasted his penalty over, leaving substitute Mikel Oyarzabal to send Spain into the semis.
Despite a sluggish start, Enrique’s men have already racked up 12 goals in the competition; equalling their highest ever total at a continental finals, set during the triumphant campaigns of 2008 and 2012.
Spain had, in fact, already won both of those tournaments after six games, but their semi-final showdown with Italy will be their sixth of this edition – and a game which they come into unbeaten throughout their last 13 fixtures. Seven of those matches ended in draws though, which suggests that their lack of a clinical finisher can sometimes hold back such a slick passing machine.
Should they be unable to break the deadlock at Wembley, they can at least reflect on fond memories from past generations, as two out of their three tournament victories over Italy have come by way of a penalty shootout. Scheduled to meet again in October in the Nations League semi-finals, this will be the 38th meeting between the two Mediterranean countries, with Spain enjoying 13 wins to Italy’s 11 – remarkably, both sides have scored and conceded 51 times in the process.
They last met in the 2018 World Cup qualifiers, where La Roja won at home and drew away, but the Italians won 2-0 in the last European Championship finals five years ago, as Spain exited at the last-16 stage.
In fact, the 2010 world champions have not been back to a major tournament semi-final since their 2012 victory bookended a four-year spell of global dominance. They will therefore be determined to extend their residency in the English capital by a few days more, as they seek a meeting with either the hosts or surprise package Denmark in next weekend’s final.
Italy European Championship form:
Italy form (all competitions):
Spain European Championship form:
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