Luka Doncic was labelled the "best player in the world" by Argentina coach Sergio Hernandez after he inspired Slovenia to an opening win at the Olympic Games.

The Dallas Mavericks star led his country to qualification for the Games and was at his remarkable best in Slovenia's 118-100 triumph.

Slovenia lead Group C after the first round of games, which wrapped up with Spain comfortably seeing off host nation Japan.

Ricky Rubio was the star for Spain, who emerged 88-77 victors at the Saitama Super Arena.


THERE'S NO DOUBT ANYMORE

Hernandez already had an extremely high opinion of Doncic, but his side's defeat at the hands of Slovenia's talisman left no question in his mind that he is the world's best.

Doncic scored 48 points, shooting 62 per cent from the field, and registered 11 rebounds in a stunning double-double performance.

Klemen Prepelic went four of six from deep in racking up 22 points, but this was predominantly a one-man show which left Hernandez in awe.

"It's really hard to analyse a game when one player just dominates everything as we saw tonight with Luka Doncic," Hernandez said. 

"We tried everything that we could and it truly sounds like an excuse but we weren't able to do much when you have such a dominating player.

"I said this two years ago: he is the best player in the world, including the NBA. If there was any doubt in my mind, there is no doubt anymore that he is the best player in the world."

RUBIO PULLS THE STRINGS

Spain will have been boosted by the United States' defeat to France as they seek a first Olympic gold medal.

And it was Rubio who ensured their quest started in routine fashion, top-scoring with 20 points and excelling as a passer in registering nine assists.

Japan improved in the second half after scoring just 14 points in each of the first two quarters, NBA duo Rui Hachimura and Yuta Watanabe excelling for the hosts.

Hachimura scored 20 points while Watanabe finished with 19 points and eight rebounds but could not prevent Japan from coming up short in their comeback bid.

France got the better of South Africa in a seven-goal thriller as Andre-Pierre Gignac's hat-trick inspired Les Bleus to a 4-3 victory at the Tokyo Olympics.

Having been thrashed 4-1 by Mexico in their opening game of Group A, France hit back to keep their chances of progression alive, though they had to do so the hard way in Saitama.

Indeed, South Africa led on three occasions during a remarkable second half, yet it was Les Bleus who took the points.

Liberato Cacace's stunner was not enough to propel New Zealand to victory against Honduras in Group B, while reigning champions Brazil could only draw 0-0 with the Ivory Coast and Spain overcame Australia thanks to Mikel Oyarzabal's late winner.

 

GIGNAC AND SAVANIER SETTLE THRILLER

France were on the wrong end of conceding four last time out, and though they still let three in this time around, Teji Savanier's stoppage-time goal saw them clinch victory.

It was 35-year-old Gignac who had previously dragged France level on three occasions – a close-range finish followed by a thumping header before the Tigres striker, the leading scorer in the competition, converted his second penalty of the tournament to cancel out Teboho Mokoena's glorious 81st-minute strike.

Luther Singh had missed a first-half penalty for South Africa, with Kobamelo Kodisang and Evidence Makgopa also getting on the scoresheet.

But Gignac's efforts set the stage for France to nose themselves ahead when Montpellier's experienced Savanier lashed home, sending South Africa out in the process.

France sit third in Group A, three points behind leaders Japan, who survived a late scare to beat Mexico 2-1.

ALL WHITES LET LEAD SLIP

Cacace's exceptional strike put New Zealand ahead after just 10 minutes in Kashima – the defender picking out the top-right corner with a first-time effort from 30 yards out.

Luis Palma restored parity in first-half stoppage time, yet Chris Wood carried on his scoring form to put New Zealand back in front just after the restart.

Yet substitutes proved the difference for Honduras. Juan Obregon netted with 12 minutes remaining, paving the way for Rigoberto Rivas to clinch the comeback victory.

Matters were much more simple for South Korea, as they cruised to a 4-0 triumph against Romania, meaning all four Group B teams are on four points heading into the final matchday.

 

OYARZABAL RECORDS LONG-AWAITED SPAIN WIN

Spain secured their first win at an Olympic Games since 2000 thanks to Oyarzabal's header against Australia, which came with nine minutes of normal time remaining.

The 24-year-old Real Sociedad winger – who played a pivotal role in Spain's run to the semi-finals at Euro 2020 – has put La Roja top of Group C heading into Wednesday's encounter with Argentina, who beat Egypt.

Spain, who drew with Egypt in their opener, won gold in 1992 and silver in 2000, but had only qualified once since then, but they failed to score across their three appearances in the 2012 London Games.

CHAMPIONS HELD AS GERMANY BOUNCE BACK

Brazil sparkled in their 4-2 win over Germany on matchday one, though they could not find a way past the Ivory Coast, who held them to a 0-0 draw in Group D.

Douglas Luiz was sent off early on for Brazil, who missed a last-gasp chance to seal qualification through substitute Malcom after the Ivory Coast had also been reduced to 10 men.

Meanwhile, Germany recovered from their defeat on matchday one to beat Saudi Arabia 3-2 – Felix Uduokhai netting the decisive goal in the 75th minute.

Spain boss Luis de la Fuente was dismayed to lose Oscar Mingueza and Dani Ceballos to injuries in the team's Tokyo 2020 opener.

The head coach of the Olympic team fears Barcelona defender Mingueza and Real Madrid midfielder Ceballos will not make swift recoveries.

He was also critical of the officiating that allowed Egypt to enforce their physical game on the match that finished 0-0 in Sapporo.

Speaking about the injured duo, who were both forced off in the first half, De la Fuente said: "They are the greatest concern. They do not look good. Let's see if I'm wrong and they can recover.

"We are very concerned because they could be serious injuries."

Mingueza was on the receiving end of a sixth-minute heavy tackle that saw Ahmed Fotouh yellow-carded, and then came off in the 22nd minute.

Ceballos was replaced shortly before half-time after being fouled by Taher Mohamed, although it was seemingly unintentional when the Egyptian player stood on the Spain star's left ankle.

Asked about Egypt's approach, after they were shown four yellow cards, De la Fuente suggested they should have had more discouragement from such forceful tackling.

He said, quoted in Marca: "The other day we had a talk in which they explained to us how the VAR works and we hope that next time we will have better luck with the sanctions that take place in the field of play because today we have not had it.

"We had a meeting that explained the actions that could be punished with a red card. Today there were several of them and they were not punished as they told us."

Mingueza had a breakthrough season at Barcelona last term, playing 39 senior games after stepping up from the club's B team.

Ceballos has returned to Real Madrid ahead of the new LaLiga campaign after spending the past two campaigns on loan at Arsenal. He failed to score in 40 games for the Gunners last season and had just three assists.

Real Madrid midfielder and former Arsenal loanee Dani Ceballos is relishing the prospect of combining with Spain's Olympic head coach Luis de la Fuente in Tokyo, having previously worked with him at Under-19 level.

Spain head into the Tokyo Olympics as one of the favourites for the gold medal, given De la Fuente has been able to call upon six players that reached the semi-final stages at Euro 2020 with the senior national side.

The names of their star-studded line-up would be enough to frighten any Olympic opposition as they have included Pedri, Unai Simon, Dani Olmo, Mikel Oyarzabal, Eric Garcia and Pau Torres.

While the players on the pitch paint an attractive picture that could see Spain win their second gold and first since 1992, Ceballos explained how his relationship with De la Fuente could help him thrive.

"I have had great coaches, but with Luis [de la Fuente] we have a different relationship. We have linked up very well from the first tournament (Under-19 European Championship in 2015)", the former Arsenal midfielder said in Tuesday's press conference.

"From then on we have forged a great relationship. He has given me confidence and I have been lucky to give it back to him on the field."

De la Fuente's men get their campaign underway versus Egypt on Thursday before subsequent fixtures against Argentina and Australia and Ceballos, who played 49 times across his two-year loan spell at Arsenal, is aware of the different challenges that the Games provide.

"It is a completely different competition than what we football players are used to. It is a unique opportunity", he said.

"It is really difficult to qualify for it because it has a lot of requirements that are really tough to meet. But this team has done a lot of things to deserve it, and now it is the time to enjoy it."

Barcelona youngster Pedri did not misplace a pass in normal time during the Euro 2020 semi-final against Italy and created 11 chances at the tournament, one more than fellow squad member Olmo (10) and one fewer than first-placed Jordi Alba (12).

 

Both will be team-mates of Ceballos and the midfielder praised all of his colleagues as they prepare to attempt to recreate the 1992 heroics which sealed home Olympic success in Barcelona.

"We have a really great team. On paper, I think we can be among the favourites, but in reality there are a lot of fantastic national teams. On the field it is going to be different", he said

"Playing in this Olympic Games has been a special dream and I have been reading about what happened in that [the 1992] tournament. Especially in the final, that there was extra time and that Spain won against Poland with a goal from Kiko Narvaez.

"Hopefully we can repeat what they did in their day."

Like Ceballos, De la Fuente spoke with pride about leading his nation at the Games, while he also discussed the possibility of following in the footsteps of those from Barcelona 1992.

"It is a pride being here. It is a different feeling from other tournaments because the Olympic Games are unique. It is a totally special experience, and we are wishing to start enjoying it as a competition and living the Olympic environment.", the head coach said.

"We are feeling the same they felt, a great desire to start competing, a great conviction that we have a great team to compete for everything. And feeling capable of fighting for the maximum. I am sure we are feeling what they felt.

"We are going to try to be up to the standards expected of us, and I am sure that we are going to perform to that level and fulfil the expectations we are creating."

The United States will head for Tokyo with back-to-back men's basketball wins after accounting for Spain 83-76 in their final exhibition game in Las Vegas prior to the Olympic Games.

Team USA have had a far-from-ideal Olympics preparation, defeated by Nigeria and Australia in exhibition games last week and losing Kevin Love to injury and Bradley Beal due to health and safety protocols.

Gregg Popovich's side bounced back by beating Argentina on Tuesday and finished off their Las Vegas camp against the Spanish on Sunday.

Damian Lillard top scored with 19 points with six assists for Team USA, while Kevin Durant had 14 points, two assists, two rebounds and two blocks.

Chicago Bulls guard Zach LaVine pulled off a series of dunks to put an exclamation mark on the performance.

Team USA are set to fly out for Tokyo on Monday, ahead of their Olympics opener against France on Sunday.

USA are grouped with France, Iran and the Czech Republic in men's basketball at the Tokyo Olympics where they are gold medal favourites.

In the women's USA defeated Nigeria 93-62 on Sunday to conclude their Olympic preparations, heading in as gold medal favourites too.

Ronald Koeman believes Spain should have given Barcelona teenager Pedri a rest rather than call him up for the Olympic Games.

The midfielder was a key part of the Spain squad that reached the semi-finals of Euro 2020, becoming the first ever player to start six games in a single European Championship or World Cup aged 18 or below.

Instead of being given time off before the start of Barcelona's LaLiga campaign, Pedri is in Japan for the Olympic football tournament.

Spain play their first game in Group C against Egypt on July 22 before fixtures with Argentina and Australia.

Koeman told a media conference: "Pedri has played a lot. We will have to give him a break, everyone needs it during the [European] summer. 

"As Pep Guardiola said, playing two important tournaments in the summer is too much, but we can't do anything. 

"Pedri's European Championship was phenomenal. At the age of 18 he has played almost all the complete matches, with an impressive maturity. 

"His football continues to improve and he is a very honest and calm boy. He lives for football. He is an example of how to be a young man at Barca.

"It is important for our grassroots football, that young people see that they are in a club that gives them opportunities."

 

Also in Spain's squad for the tournament is defender Eric Garcia, who re-joined Barca from Manchester City on a free transfer.

Koeman tipped the 20-year-old former Barca academy player to have a big impact on the first team when he is able to link up with the club following the Olympics.

"He has had a great European Championship," Koeman said. 

"He comes from here and, despite his youth, he already has a lot of experience. He plays in the same position I did. 

"With the ball he is very good and we can improve from behind with him. He also has projection and a great future ahead."

Meanwhile, Koeman hopes Ousmane Dembele can make a swift return from injury.

The France forward, whose contract at Camp Nou expires at the end of the 2021-22 season, is recovering from surgery on a knee injury sustained at Euro 2020 that is expected to keep him out for four months.

Dembele's career since his move to Barca from Borussia Dortmund for €105million four years ago has been blighted by injury setbacks.

The 24-year-old has managed just 54 LaLiga starts in four seasons at Camp Nou, while last season he completed 90 minutes in the league on just five occasions.

"I am very disappointed with his injury," Koeman added.

"Also, the situation with his contract is complicated. It is a pity for himself and for us. 

"He brought us a lot last year, different from what we have. I hope he can come back soon."

The United States are always favourites at the Olympic Games – and rightly so. In 18 entries to the men's basketball event, Team USA have collected 18 medals, 15 of them gold.

But those three defeats serve as a warning for Gregg Popovich's side.

And any remaining complacency heading to Tokyo 2020 – in pursuit of a fourth straight title – should have been shifted by their initial pre-tournament exhibitions.

The United States lost to Nigeria last Saturday and then to Australia two days later, their third and fourth defeats in exhibitions since first fielding NBA players with the formation of the 'Dream Team' in 1992.

"It was better," as Popovich said, in Tuesday's win over Argentina – "bit by bit, every day, I hope," the coach added – but the pressure is still on, as consistent results must follow when the real action begins.

 

TOUGH START FOR TEAM USA SUPERSTARS

Of course, Team USA have never failed to advance from the preliminary round and that spotless record is highly unlikely to change this year. A kind draw has thrown up only one true test, but it comes first up: against France.

Indeed, Les Bleus dealt the United States their humiliating quarter-final exit at the FIBA Basketball World Cup two years ago.

Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert – the three-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year – put up a game-high 16 rebounds in that France victory and his size is a real problem for familiar opponents.

Gobert led the league with 2.7 blocks and 10.1 defensive rebounds per game in 2020-21, snaring 33.5 per cent of defensive boards while on the floor for the third-best mark in the NBA.

Bam Adebayo and Draymond Green might be versatile but, as the two preferred American options at the five, finding joy in the middle seems unlikely, while Team USA might also struggle to stop 7ft 1in Gobert on defense. His 67.5 per cent shooting was another benchmark.

However, the talent elsewhere in the Team USA lineup should ensure they have enough to win most matchups.

Kevin Durant shot 52.3 per cent from the midrange and 45.0 per cent from beyond the arc in the regular season; only two players made more threes than Damian Lillard (275), who then broke Klay Thompson's record with 12 makes from deep in a single playoff game against the Denver Nuggets.

The opener could either see Durant and Co lay down a marker for the rest of the tournament or provide other contenders with a blueprint for beating the United States.

 

BOOMERS BANG UP FOR MEDAL PURSUIT

Australia are far from the biggest team at the Games, but they have already shown the joy that can be found in the paint against Team USA, scoring 44 points from inside the key in their exhibition win.

The Boomers' effective, well-executed gameplan was all the more impressive given the unsettled nature of their team.

They have changed coach three times since the World Cup, and star name Ben Simmons is absent – working to "develop that skill package and improve in a couple of areas", Brian Goorjian said, after averaging an awful 9.9 points per game in the playoff series defeat to the Atlanta Hawks.

But Philadelphia 76ers team-mate Matisse Thybulle is still on hand to provide defensive energy, having led the NBA in steal percentage (3.9), while Patty Mills remains more reliable at international level than for Popovich's San Antonio Spurs.

Four times beaten in the bronze medal game, Australia will expect to finally secure some hardware, yet Group B also contains a dark horse in the form of Nigeria, who followed up their own victory against the United States by dominating Argentina.

Miami Heat guard Gabe Vincent had 21 points against the country of his birth, a total he has only once topped in his NBA career to date.

Nigeria have chemistry, talent and, in Golden State Warriors associate head coach Mike Brown, coaching experience. They have also played so far like they have a point to prove.

 

DONCIC DRAWN INTO GROUP OF DEATH

Second and third pool games against Iran and the Czech Republic respectively should see that there is no jeopardy for the United States early on, but Group C shows how tough this tournament can be.

There will be a rematch of the 2019 World Cup final between Spain and Argentina, while hosts Japan will hope to make some noise. Then there is Slovenia, led of course by Luka Doncic.

One of the most exciting young talents in the world, Doncic has already shown himself capable of dragging a team to against-the-odds victories single-handedly.

The 22-year-old, whose 36.0 per cent usage rate led the NBA this year, was unsurprisingly named the MVP at the Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Kaunas just three weeks after forcing the Los Angeles Clippers to go to a Game 7 in the first round of the playoffs.

Doncic has averaged 33.5 points across his 13 career postseason games – all of which have come against the Clippers. No player in NBA history has played 13 playoff games or more and averaged more, with Michael Jordan second on 33.4.

But Doncic has lost both of those series to date and is now faced with some hugely experienced players at this level. Argentina's Luis Scola and Spain's Pau Gasol – who moved to Barcelona specifically to prepare for the Games – are both in their 40s.

Should Doncic guide his country into the knockout stage, though, Team USA would undoubtedly be wary of taking on the two-time All-NBA First Team selection.

Italy and Argentina can prepare for the 2022 World Cup full of confidence after continental triumphs in the European Championship and Copa America.

The Azzurri have recovered in spectacular fashion from failing to qualify for Russia 2018, while Lionel Messi finally has an international honour to shout about.

Those teams were not alone in taking encouragement from this year's major international tournaments, but other potential Qatar contenders were not quite so impressive.

While some sides could reasonably point to mitigating factors – Belgium's injuries, Germany's final campaign under Joachim Low – plenty of big names underwhelmed.

With the World Cup finals, now just 16 months away, the next big target on the horizon, Stats Perform assesses which teams have put themselves in a better or worse position to challenge.

FULL OF HOPE...

Italy

Italy might have missed the previous World Cup after an awful qualifying campaign but, barring another such mishap, will enter the next tournament as defending European champions, and the Azzurri have in the past tended to perform better on the world stage than in the Euros, this their second continental championship to go alongside four global triumphs.

The only question mark against Roberto Mancini's side heading into Euro 2020 on a long unbeaten run was how they might fare against top teams, having largely avoided facing elite opposition since their most recent defeat to Portugal in September 2018. They then eliminated Belgium, Spain and England in succession to take the title and extend their stunning streak to 34 matches without a loss.

 

Only in the centre of defence, with Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci, are Italy really ageing, and even then a swift turnaround could see the pair go again, having trailed for only 109 minutes of their undefeated stretch – 65 of those coming in the final against England.

Argentina

Argentina had been without a major honour since 1993, losing four Copa America finals and one World Cup decider since then. Messi had been involved in four of those five disappointments, but his and his country's fortunes finally changed for the better against Brazil.

The world's finest free agent was the obvious difference-maker, even if he did not score or create a goal in the 2021 final. Messi's goal involvements across the campaign improved from two in 2019 to a leading nine. He also created more chances (3.0, up from 2.0) and attempted more shots (4.0, up from 3.1) per 90 minutes.

But Messi also benefited from Argentina's sturdier foundations. Goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez – a debutant last month – was a breakout star, with the defence in front of him limiting chances as La Albiceleste conceded only three goals, half as many as in more matches in two years earlier.

England

Qatar 2022 will feel a long way away right now for England, who were so close yet so far from glory at Wembley. It ended in disappointment, but just making a first major tournament final in 55 years can only be counted as a success.

And the Three Lions have now proven they can now regularly contend; having reached the semi-finals at the previous World Cup, they have won knockout matches at consecutive tournaments (excluding third-place play-offs) for the first time. This might well be England's best ever team and they still have age on their side heading to Qatar.

Gareth Southgate's side should at least continue to be hard to beat. Since his first game in charge in 2016, England have kept 35 clean sheets – four clear of Italy with the best tally for a European nation.

 

Spain

Two games into Euro 2020, it seemed unlikely Spain would emerge from the tournament in a particularly positive light. They had dominated against Sweden – setting records for possession (85 per cent), passes (917) and successful passes (830) – and Poland, yet drawn both matches.

But the next two outings were rather more uplifting as La Roja scored five times against both Slovakia and Croatia to become the first team in Euros history to do so in consecutive matches. After scraping past Switzerland on penalties, Spain were the better side against Italy in the last four, only to come up just short – this time beaten on spot-kicks.

If Luis Enrique can unearth a reliable forward before next November, having underperformed their expected goals total by an alarming 4.1, Spain will very much be back in business.

DOWNWARD SLOPE...

Netherlands

At the end of the group stage, the Netherlands looked to be on a comparable course to Italy. They had also missed out on the 2018 World Cup – and Euro 2016 – but then reached the final of the inaugural Nations League in 2019 and won their first three matches at Euro 2020.

Led by Memphis Depay, those victories had also extended a run of scoring at least twice to 10 consecutive games in an Oranje record. Only then, though, did their campaign fall apart.

 

Matthijs de Ligt's red card against the Czech Republic in the last 16 led to a shock 2-0 defeat and cost Frank de Boer his job. Rebuilding again, the Netherlands – who were missing Virgil van Dijk due to the injury he sustained in October 2020 – have work to do just to get to Qatar, one of three teams on six points in Group G in qualifying, behind Turkey.

France

France were the favourites for Euro 2020 and may well be the popular pick again next year, but their shock shoot-out exit to Switzerland raised plenty of questions.

Supposed to shine alongside the returning Karim Benzema, superstar forward Kylian Mbappe disappointed for the first time on the big stage, a solitary assist his only goal involvement. Yet even when the big names did combine to devastating effect, as Benzema scored twice within four minutes and three seconds of a Hugo Lloris penalty save against Switzerland, dismal defending cost Les Bleus.

France gave away a tournament-high three spot-kicks, not helped by Didier Deschamps' unsuccessful attempt to switch to a new 3-4-1-2 formation – one that will surely be left in the drawer for the World Cup.

Portugal

Will Cristiano Ronaldo consider this a successful tournament? Portugal lost their crown, but he took home the Golden Boot with five goals and an assist. The Juventus forward's contributions kept Fernando Santos' side in contention as far as the round of 16, although – as at times at club level – there was a suspicion this team might better be able to thrive without their talisman.

 

No other Portugal player tallied more than two goal involvements, with Bruno Fernandes, Joao Felix, Bernardo Silva and Andre Silva each drawing blanks. Indeed, that highly talented quartet only attempted 10 shots – five fewer than Ronaldo alone – and created 13 chances between them.

In Qatar, Ronaldo may be less mobile but will surely remain front and centre, reluctant to step aside for Fernandes and Co as he takes one final shot at World Cup glory.

Brazil

Had a tense home final gone their way, Brazil would have again been big winners coming out of the Copa America. But Argentina's progress and decisive victory has seen the Selecao – for so long on top in South America – knocked off their perch.

After five consecutive successes, it was Brazil's first major tournament final defeat since the 1998 World Cup, while they had not been beaten in a knockout match at the Copa America (excluding penalties) since 2001 against Honduras. However, they did become world champions for a fifth time the following year.

That will be the hope as Tite's men regroup, having lost their scoring touch when it mattered most. Brazil netted only twice in three knockout games.

Roberto Mancini has overseen arguably one of the all-time great transformations in international football, not only turning Italy into a team that has a clear and fresh identity, but also a side that is successful.

When they lost 1-0 to Portugal on September 10, 2018 in the Nations League, who'd have thought that by the next time they suffered defeat they'd have won the European Championship? The fact that's the case despite Euro 2020 being delayed for 12 months is all the more impressive.

While the Azzurri required a penalty shoot-out against England in Sunday's final at Wembley, it's fair to say Italy were worthy victors in the end, with their hosts' caution only taking them so far.

In fact, England's pragmatism was arguably akin to the philosophy historically associated with Italy, but under Mancini they've truly embraced a tactical fluidity that has seemingly altered the perception many have of them.

Press smart, work smart

Intense off-the-ball work and a high press have almost become mainstream in modern football. While they aren't necessarily prevalent aspects of every team, not even every great team, many of the world's finest coaches try to implement them to a certain degree.

At Euro 2020, it's been a core strength of Italy – but it's not just a case of chasing down opponents like headless chickens. They've proven themselves to be smart.

 

The average amount of passes Italy allow their opponents to have in their own defensive third before initiating a defensive action is 13 (PPDA). Seven teams at the tournament pressed with greater intensity, but none were as effective as Italy.

Their 56 high turnovers were matched by Denmark but Italy boasted a tournament-high 13 that led to a shot, while three resulted in a goal – that too was bettered by no other team.

It suggests that, while other sides such as Spain (8.1 PPDA) pressed higher, Italy were better at picking their moments and knowing when to up the intensity.

Italy still managed to remain well balanced, too. Their average starting position of 42.9 metres from their own goal was deeper than six other teams, an important factor considering Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci aren't the quickest.

Yet they still pressed to greater effect that any of the others.

Establishing control

If there was one area of the pitch that you might point out as most crucial in Italy's Euro 2020 success (if we ignore Gianluigi Donnarumma's shoot-out saves), it would be their midfield.

Nicolo Barella, Marco Verratti and Jorginho were largely excellent as a trio, though the latter pair have attracted most of the acclaim.

In Verratti, Mancini seems to have a player who truly embodies their style of play – an excellent creator, he also does more than his fair share off the ball as one of the most complete central midfielders in the game today. He puts the fun in functional.

Verratti played the most key passes (14) of anyone at the tournament and ranked fourth for successful passes (87.1) and fifth for tackle attempts (4.0) per 90 minutes (at least 90 mins played).

 

The Paris Saint-Germain star also provided drive from the centre, with his 23 ball carries per 90 minutes bettered by just five midfielders, though only Pedri moved the ball between five and 10 metres upfield more often than Verratti (47), highlighting his progressive mentality.

Yet he didn't do it all on his own – after all, Verratti missed the first two games through injury. No, Jorginho had a similarly important function as the chief deep-lying playmaker, playing 484 successful passes, trailing only Aymeric Laporte.

On top of that, Jorginho showed his innate ability to sniff out danger and get Italy back on the move, with his 48 recoveries the second-highest among outfield players.

Given the presence of these two, it's no wonder Italy strung together the third-most sequences of 10 of more passes (123), yet at no point did you feel they got in each other's way, which again is testament to Mancini's setup.

 

Turning a weakness into a strength

The fact Italy were successful despite not having a particularly convincing striker highlighted the effectiveness of other areas of the team.

Ciro Immobile was Mancini's pick to lead the line. He wasn't necessarily bad, as his goal involvement output of four (two goals, two assists) was only trumped by Patrik Schick and Cristiano Ronaldo.

However, the Lazio man was by no means deadly in front of goal, hitting the target with just three of 18 shots. Among players with at least 10 attempts, just four were accurate with a smaller percentage than Immobile (16.7 per cent).

 

But so fluid were Italy that it didn't really matter. Immobile was one of five Italy players to net two goals, something no team has achieved at the Euros since France did in 2000.

At Italy's Coverciano coach training facility, there is said to have been a growing focus on the development of what are essentially formation-less tactics, and the fact Italy carried a threat from so many different positions suggests such a future actually isn't that far away.

Further to this, Italy showed real flexibility in attack. Sure, they scored 10 times inside the box, a figure third only to Spain and England, but the difference is the Azzurri also netted three from outside the area – no team managed more.

While you might expect that to reflect significantly in their expected goals (xG), Italy still pretty much scored exactly the number of goals one would ordinarily expect from the quality of their chances (13 goals, 13.2 xG), albeit one of those was an own goal.

 

Whether Italy have enough talent coming through to sustain this level and establish the first international 'dynasty' since the Spain side that won Euro 2008, the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012 is another debate.

But there's little doubt Mancini has the know-how to make them the team to beat if the production line doesn't dry up.

Italy ended their 53-year wait for a second European Championship crown with victory over England in the Euro 2020 final at Wembley.

Leonardo Bonucci cancelled out an early Luke Shaw goal to take the game to extra time and then penalties, which the Azzurri edged 3-2 to inflict heartbreak on hosts England.

Italy's triumph was deserved on the basis of the qualifying campaign and the tournament itself; Roberto Mancini's side have now gone 34 games unbeaten in all competitions.

England can also be proud of their run, and it is perhaps no surprise that the two finalists dominate Stats Perform's best XI of the tournament.

Portugal forward Cristiano Ronaldo is also included in our Opta data-driven side, along with players from Switzerland, Spain, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic.

 

Goalkeeper: Yann Sommer (Switzerland)

Gianluigi Donnarumma may have been named UEFA's Player of the Tournament for his penalty shoot-out heroics against Spain and Italy, but Sommer gets the nod after enjoying an incredible tournament.

The Swiss goalkeeper saved a Kylian Mbappe penalty in his side's shoot-out win against France in the last 16 and made a tournament-high 21 saves in total, 10 of those coming in the eventual defeat to Spain on penalties in the quarter-finals.

 

Right-back: Denzel Dumfries (Netherlands)

Dumfries' reputation was certainly enhanced during Euro 2020, even if the Netherlands were sent packing by the Czech Republic at the last-16 stage.

He became just the second ever Netherlands player, after Ruud van Nistelrooy, to score in his first two European Championship appearances, while also helping his side to a couple of clean sheets in his four outings.

Centre-back: Leonardo Bonucci (Italy)

Juventus defender Bonucci was a rock at the heart of Italy's defence, particularly in the quarter-finals when frustrating Belgium's plethora of attackers.

No defender made more interceptions than the 34-year-old (12, level with Ukraine's Mykola Matvienko), and it was his bundled finish that drew his country level against England in the final.

Centre-back: John Stones (England)

England conceded just two goals all tournament, with only one of those coming in open play. A large part of that was down to ever-present defender Stones, who carried his club form with Manchester City onto the international stage.

Stones won 20 aerial challenges – the joint-second most of any defender in the competition, one behind Harry Maguire – and his 447 successful passes placed him behind only Jordi Alba (458) and club-mate Aymeric Laporte (644).

Left-back: Luke Shaw (England)

Shaw was left out for England's opening game against Croatia, but the full-back soon made himself a consistent presence. He was even compared to the great Roberto Carlos after starring with two assists against Ukraine in the quarter-finals.

The Manchester United defender provided three assists in total and netted the fastest-ever goal in a European Championship final with his volley against Italy. Those four goal involvements were bettered only by Patrik Schick (five) and Ronaldo (six).

 

Central midfield: Marco Verratti (Italy)

The Paris Saint-Germain midfielder was a major fitness doubt for the tournament and sat out Italy's first two matches, but boy did he make an impact in the following five games.

Since his first game against Wales on June 20, all-rounder Verratti ranked first among all midfielders at Euro 2020 for chances created (14), passes completed (388), progressive carries (59), tackles (18) and recoveries of possession (37).

Central midfield: Pedri (Spain)

A number of young players enjoyed a breakthrough tournament at this edition of the Euros, arguably none more so than Barcelona superstar in the making Pedri, who made more passes in the opposing half (348) than any other player at the Euros.

He became the second European player to start as many as five games at the age of 18 or below in major tournament history, after Northern Ireland's Norman Whiteside. Proving age is just a number, Pedri completed all 55 of his passes in regular time in the semi-final loss to Italy.

Right wing: Federico Chiesa (Italy)

Versatile wide player Chiesa was always going to be one to watch at the Euros, having stepped up on the big occasions for Juventus last season with goals in key matches, including their Coppa Italia triumph against Atalanta.

He scored Italy's extra-time opener in their last-16 win against Austria and put his side ahead against Spain in the semi-finals. He was not afraid to shoot – only three others did so on more occasions – and was arguably Italy's most dangerous player in the final.

Attacking midfield: Patrik Schick (Czech Republic)

Schick not only scored the joint-most goals, his five strikes putting him level with Ronaldo, but he was responsible for surely the most memorable one of the lot - a 49.7-yard lob against Scotland, the furthest ever distance a goal has been scored at a European Championships.

The Bayer Leverkusen forward found the net in all but one of his side's games, with three of his goals coming from open play, compared to just two for Golden Boot winner Ronaldo.

 

Left wing: Raheem Sterling (England)

England's run to the final would not have been possible if not for the fine form of Sterling, the Manchester City winger responsible for his side's first three goals in the competition.

That includes winning strikes against Croatia and the Czech Republic in the group stage, followed by the opener against Germany in the last 16, before assisting Kane's early goal against Ukraine. Even when not scoring he was a real threat, leading the way with 20 dribbles completed – four more than next player on the list in Frenkie de Jong.

Centre-forward: Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal)

Even though it was far from a vintage tournament for Ronaldo and dethroned champions Portugal, the Juventus superstar still claimed the Golden Boot accolade thanks to having one assist more than fellow five-goal forward Schick.

Ronaldo's 72 minutes per goal was the best return of any player to have played at least three times in the tournament. His haul also moved him level with Iran great Ali Daei as the all-time leading goalscorer in men's international football with 109, a record that he will get a chance to break later this year.

 

There was a sense of justice and vindication about Italy reaching the final of Euro 2020. They had been arguably the most entertaining side at the tournament and attracted near-universal levels of acclaim for their performances.

Added to that, there was an inspiring narrative that followed their every step, how they'd recovered from the failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, started from scratch with a new coach and philosophy, and seen it all come together at their first major tournament since.

But they were fortunate to get beyond Spain in the semi-finals, eventually coming through on penalties after a 1-1 draw.

La Roja did more than enough to win the match, their 1.5 xG almost double the 0.8 that Italy recorded, highlighting the greater quality chances created by Luis Enrique's men.

Although Spain's almost trademark – at this tournament, anyway – wastefulness eventually caught up with them, they at least did Gareth Southgate and England a service in pinpointing ways to hurt Italy.

 

Thinking outside of the box

The chief alteration Luis Enrique made to his side from Spain's previous matches at Euro 2020 was the decision to disregard Alvaro Morata and Gerard Moreno for that central striker berth.

Now, some might have suggested it was about time, given they were two of the three players with the worst xG underperformance ahead of the semi-finals – Morata had two goals from 3.95 xG, Moreno had no goals from 3.27 xG.

But the reason for their absence, and the presence of Dani Olmo as a false nine, quickly became apparent. The RB Leipzig attacking midfielder withdrew into deeper positions so as to not directly engage Giorgio Chiellini or Leonardo Bonucci in physical duels, but at the same time this helped create midfield overloads in Spain's favour.

This was obvious on numerous occasions, but one of the most notable saw Olmo actually drop in front of Jorginho, a clever flick in the centre-circle seeing him release Pedri into space as Spain cleverly picked through the Italian midfield.

Granted, it didn't necessarily lead to a goal that time, but it highlighted how uncomfortable Italy sometimes found themselves, and the fact Olmo's combined total of seven shots and key passes (five attempts, two chances created) was the most of any player against Italy at this tournament cannot be a coincidence.

Morata's equaliser off the bench came from a situation not too dissimilar to the previous one as well. This time it was he who picked the ball up in a deep position, before charging straight through the Italy midfield and playing a one-two with Olmo, leaving him with a simple finish. Although he might've missed a few of those already in this tournament, he finished with aplomb on that occasion.

 

The blueprint

You know how in some video games there are unusually fearsome enemies who only unleash their wrath upon the player if they don't keep their distance? Well, that seemed to be how Luis Enrique saw Chiellini and Bonucci, and maybe he has a point.

Ahead of the final, Chiellini's 71.4 per cent duels success has been bettered by only six defenders (involved in 10 or more duels), while Bonucci's 12 interceptions is the best of all of them. Together, there's not much they don't possess.

That's why playing around them, rather than through them, seems to be the way to go.

While England don't possess a midfield that's as capable – in almost any sense – as Spain's, mirroring their set-up could at least make things trickier for Italy's core: that centre-back pairing and the three-man midfield.

Jorginho, Nicolo Barella and Marco Verratti have been largely excellent at Euro 2020, but at Wembley on Tuesday they were overrun.

 

Jorginho found it particularly tough going, the Chelsea man completing just 26 passes and only five of those were in the Spain half. To put that into context, his previous match low for accurate passes at the Euros was 50, and he'd not gone below 29 in the opponent's half of the pitch.

 

Verratti and Barella also recorded tournament lows in the same metrics, but it was Jorginho's lack of influence that was most notable and, given he is generally the deepest-lying of the Italian midfield, it lends further credence to the idea that Olmo operating slightly deeper ensured the former Napoli star was uncomfortable and unable to truly dictate.

Instead, that was done by Sergio Busquets and – to a slightly lesser extent, but no less impressively – Pedri, while Koke spent much of his time marshalling Verratti in something of a man-marking role.

Of course, an important distinction to make is that Kalvin Phillips, Declan Rice and Mason Mount aren't Busquets, Pedri and Koke, but if England are to limit the influence of the Italian midfield, all three will need to play the games of their lives.

Kane holds the key

If Phillips and Rice can establish some form of control, the second key factor for England will be the role played by Harry Kane.

While Kane is undoubtedly capable of causing Bonucci and Chiellini problems, mimicking Olmo's performance could be a smart move, and there are few strikers in world football more capable than the Tottenham man at dropping deep and impacting the match in withdrawn spaces.

Jose Mourinho would know all about that, given it was under the Portuguese coach in 2020-21 that Kane enjoyed his best season creatively, reaching double figures for Premier League assists for the first time.

Mourinho told talkSPORT: "[Spain] was the only team that managed to unbalance that Italy midfield, because they had three and Spain had three plus Olmo, almost in a diamond. It was really difficult for Italy to cope with it. I can see Harry Kane doing that a lot. I can see Harry dropping and being away from Bonucci and Chiellini.

 

"For Bonucci and Chilellini, to have a target man in there is what they want. By not having a target man there, it's an extra midfielder, Harry Kane does that better than anyone."

Kane's 14 assists (12 in open play) in 2020-21 came from 3.6 xA (expected assists). Granted, that 10.4 over-performance – which was by far the best across the top five leagues – suggests a hint of fortune or that he was helped by good finishing from team-mates, but the idea he got lucky on every single occasion is far-fetched. He is clearly a fine link-up player.

Seven of those assists came from deeper positions, and the role Raheem Sterling plays for England isn't too dissimilar to that of Son Heung-min at Spurs, and we all know about Kane and Son's on-pitch relationship.

Italy's midfield is their strength, but all three of their regulars are players who want the ball – none of them are destroyers, and Spain have provided England with the blueprint to dull their impact.

Whether the Three Lions are up to the challenge will define if 55 years of hurt finally end on Sunday.

 

Italy head coach Roberto Mancini insisted the Azzurri are not done yet after silencing their doubters to reach the Euro 2020 final.

Not since 1968 have Italy won the European Championship but they are one victory away from adding to their solitary Euro crown following Tuesday's 4-2 penalty shoot-out triumph over Spain.

After the semi-final finished 1-1 at the end of extra time at Wembley, Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma saved Alvaro Morata's spot-kick as Jorginho stepped up to convert the winning penalty in London.

Amid a national record 33-game unbeaten streak, Italy will face either England or Denmark in Sunday's decider at Wembley.

"We're delighted to have been able to provide this wonderful evening's entertainment to the Italian people and now we still have one game to go and we want to do exactly that if possible," Mancini – who has overseen a stunning transformation after Italy failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup – said during a news conference.

"We knew that it was going to be a very tough match because in terms of ball possession, Spain are the best around. They caused us problems, we had to dig in when we needed to. We tried to score and create opportunities when we could it was a very open match and of course there were some issues because we didn't have too much possession.

"However we wanted to make it into the final and we kept trying right until the end and as ever penalties are a lottery but I really want to take my hat off to Spain, they're a wonderful team."

Italy became the second team in the European Championship history after winners France at Euro 2000 to have five different players score two or more goals in a single tournament, following Federico Chiesa's 60th-minute opener, which was cancelled out by Morata with 10 minutes of regulation remaining.

 

The Azzurri's 12 goals at Euro 2020 is their joint-highest tally at a major tournament alongside the 2006, 1982 and 1934 World Cups. On each of those occasions, they left with the trophy.

Italy reached their 10th major final (World Cup and Euros), progressing to the decider of the European Championships for the fourth time (also six World Cup finals) – only Germany (14) have participated in more major finals amongst European nations.

Mancini said: "I must say that we are very happy about all of this, and I must thank the players because they have believed right from day one that we could produce something incredible. We haven't yet done everything we need to, there's still one step to go, and now we have to rest up because this really was very challenging.

"I did say to them before the match that this would be our hardest game of the competition, because when you go into your sixth match in such quick succession with all the travelling we've had to do, it does become very tiring. We certainly struggled with Spain's ball possession and had some issues, but we wanted to make the final."

"I think when you're involved in such an intense World Cup or European Championship, there always comes a game where you will have to dig in to be able to win a match and suffer, because it can't all be very smooth as our progress has been thus far going into the final four," he continued. "So we knew that it was going to be a very tough match, and we knew that it was going to be this game that would be the tough one. That's why I think the players, and everyone that has worked with us over the last three years deserve a lot of credit, because it wasn't easy by any means. Almost no one believed we could do it. And yet we are into the final. We are pleased for Italians everywhere that have been following us over the last few weeks."

Mancini added: "Everyone wants to do this. Occasionally it comes off, sometimes less so. But the players did want to do something different, they wanted to play a brand of football that people enjoyed and thus far they've managed to do exactly that. Difficult tasks are ultimately all the more enjoyable, and we are very happy to have made it into the final but we haven't achieved anything yet. So we still have to wait."

Luis Enrique hailed Spain sensation Pedri, comparing the teenager to Barcelona and La Roja great Andres Iniesta following Tuesday's Euro 2020 semi-final loss to Italy.

Italy booked their place in the final with a 4-2 penalty shoot-out victory over Spain after the enthralling showdown finished 1-1 at Wembley.

Despite Spain's frustrating outing after substitute Alvaro Morata cancelled out Federico Chiesa's opener, it was a memorable campaign for 18-year-old star Pedri.

Pedri became the first European player in major tournament history (World Cup and Euros) to start as many as six such matches at the age of 18 or below and Luis Enrique lavished the Barcelona midfielder in praise.

"Well I think no 18-year-old has done what Pedri has done in any major competition, whether it's the Euros, the World Cup or the Olympics," Luis Enrique told reporters.

"His performances, the way he reads the game, the way he finds space, his quality, his personality, I've never seen anything like that, not even Andres Iniesta.

"It's absolutely impossible to explain."

Luis Enrique also lauded attacker Dani Olmo, adding: "[He] was absolutely fantastic today, he's a very intelligent player with plenty of quality. He is good between the lines, he picks up the ball well.

"We wanted to starve [Giorgio] Chiellini and [Leonardo] Bonucci of that focal point and I think we did that really well. We wanted to prevent them from doing what they did with [Romelu] Lukaku so it was about creating that four versus three in that area of the pitch. That meant it was going to be difficult for them to take the ball from us.

"We created a lot of chances and I think we were just missing that final step in terms of taking some of our chances. It's very difficult to get the ball off a player like Dani Olmo so I think the players implemented our tactics to perfection. Olmo is a very important player for us because he can play in a range of different situations. He can score goals and he's a very complete footballer."

 

Left out of the starting line-up for the first time this tournament, Morata made an impact from the bench by equalising with 10 minutes remaining in normal time following Chiesa's 60th-minute opener.

Neither side could find a way through in the additional period in what was a repeat of the 2012 final, which Spain won 4-0 for their third European title, though it was Italy who prevailed in Tuesday's enthralling clash.

Morata's penalty was saved by Gianluigi Donnarumma, paving the way for Jorginho to convert the winning spot-kick, as Italy extended their unbeaten run to 33 games to set up a clash with either England or Denmark in Sunday's final at the same ground. 

Embattled forward Morata has now scored more goals at the European Championships than any other Spain player (six), overtaking Fernando Torres' five goals. In fact, Morata became the first ever Spain player to score for club and country at Wembley.

Morata is also in rarefied company as the second player to scored three or more times in multiple Euros after Cristiano Ronaldo, who has done so on three occasions.

"He has an abductor problem. It really says a lot about his personality that despite that he wanted to take a penalty. He's gone through some tough times during this tournament but he was brilliant," said Luis Enrique.

"He really created a lot of uncertainty in the Italian ranks, he scored of course, so he was excellent. I haven't seen him because he's had to go to doping control. I was able to see Jordi Alba, but I'll go and see him now.

After Spain failed to progress from a semi-final at a major tournament (World Cup and Euros) for the first time in their history, Luis Enrique said: "I'd say that it would be an A- for my players, it would be an A+ had we won. We've been speaking about how we want to play at the Euros for many months.

"The players really bought into that and they did a wonderful job of it. I have no complaints. Really, I just want to congratulate my players. We've shown that we are a team and that we are going to continue doing that. Now it's important for us to rest while the rest of the teams compete and we'll see each other again at future training camps."

Italy will have a shot at their first European title for 53 years after overcoming Spain on penalties in Tuesday's Euro 2020 semi-final.

Four-time world champions Italy were taken to extra-time at Wembley, where Alvaro Morata cancelled out Federico Chiesa's opener to ensure it was 1-1 after 90 minutes.

Neither side could find the breakthrough during the additional half hour and Manuel Locatelli and Dani Olmo failed with the opening penalties for their respective sides.

But Morata turned from hero to villain when Gianluigi Donnarumma saved his tame spot-kick and Jorginho converted to book a final showdown with either England or Denmark.

For Spain, and Morata in particular, this night could have ended up feeling very different indeed.

 

Italy claim the spoils in latest instalment of titanic rivalry

At the expense of their fellow heavyweights, Italy reached the 10th major tournament final and fourth in this competition. Only Germany (14) have competed in more among European nations.

Spain chalked up an unwanted first, having progressed on each of their previous five semi-final appearances at World Cups and European Championships.

Luis Enrique's side went the distance for a third consecutive match after beating Croatia 5-3 in extra time and seeing off Switzerland in a quarter-final shoot-out – equalling the record for the most extra-time periods in a single Euro (Portugal, 2016).

No side have been taken to extra time more often in the history of the competition than Italy (nine).

 

History before heartbreak for Morata

Morata has been a focus of derision for some throughout this tournament and, unfortunately, it looks like there will be plenty more of that to come.

Before kick-off at Wembley it even looked as if Luis Enrique had lost faith.

The Spain boss has been a staunch defender of his main forward in the face of persistent criticism, but opted to go with a fluid front three of Ferran Torres, Dani Olmo and Mikel Oyarzabal.

Morata entered the fray in place of Manchester City forward Torres in the 62nd minute and coolly dispatched Spain's equaliser with 10 to play in normal time.

The Juventus man has now scored more goals at the European Championship than any other Spain player with six, overtaking Fernando Torres.

He is also in rarefied company as the second player to scored three or more times in multiple Euros after Cristiano Ronaldo, who has done so on three occasions.

Playing for Chelsea in 2017-18, Morata scored in a 2-0 FA Cup semi-final win over Southampton, meaning on Tuesday he became the first Spanish player to net at Wembley for both club and country.

Morata's is a truly accomplished body of work and one he can hopefully take solace in over the tough days and weeks ahead.

 

Chiesa helps Italy to share the load

Roberto Mancini's freewheeling attack were denied their usual joy by Spain during the opening stages.

Left-back Emerson hit the crossbar in the 45th minute – Italy's first shot of the game and their longest wait for an attempt on goal in the tournament.

Indeed, only versus the Netherlands at Euro 2000 have they had to wait so long in the modern era, with the Oranje keeping the Azzurri at bay until the 48th minute.

As in the last 16 against Austria, Chiesa was again on target at Wembley,

That meant Italy became the second team in the European Championship history after winners France at Euro 2000 to have five different players score two or more goals in a single tournament.

Chiesa joined Locatteli, Lorenzo Insigne, Ciro Immobile and Matteo Pessina on two for the competition.

Italy's 12 goals at Euro 2020 is their joint-highest tally at a major tournament alongside the 2006, 1982 and 1934 World Cups. On each of those occasions, they left with the trophy.

 

Perfection for pass master Pedri

Spain outperformed many pre-tournament expectations and in Pedri, they have a potential superstar of the global game for years to come.

The Barcelona midfielder is the first ever player to start six games in a single Euro or World Cup aged 18 or below.

In normal time, Pedri completed all 56 of his passes, including 37 in the Italy half. He became the second player in Euros history to record 100 per cent accuracy after 90 minutes, although France's Samuel Umtiti (76/76 at Euro 2016) probably had an easier route to his statistics from centre-back.

At the end of extra time, he had completed 65 of 67 passes. Nobody's perfect, eh?

In the 15th minute and then early in extra time, the chant of "Football's coming home" rang out around certain quarters of Wembley.

A handful of English supporters even waved the St George's flag excitedly, these people having sadly come down with a curious case of 'helluva match' fatigue.

The Spanish and Italian fans in London whistled in derision, united in incredulity. Before them a vintage Euro 2020 semi-final was unfolding, but their English brethren were farting out a Lightning Seeds song.

Like the Wimbledon wag who shouts "Come on, Tim" in an Andy Murray match, this was conduct that invited pity. Save it for another day, eh?

Besides, hadn't they read the signs?

An Italy fan strode down Wembley Way before kick-off in a tricolore flag bearing the slogan 'IT'S COMING HOME TO ROME', a giant red cross striking out 'HOME'.

And who would doubt that now?

Italy aren't going home to Rome yet, but when they do, they believe it will be as returning heroes. The Azzurri are through to the European Championship final, vying to land this title for the first time since 1968, a penalty shoot-out victory over La Roja sure to only enhance the sense of invincibility that now characterises Roberto Mancini's team.

That's 33 games unbeaten for Italy now, Jorginho their fifth taker in the penalty shoot-out with the glory, passing the ball into the right corner with an unimaginable degree of calm after Gianluigi Donnarumma saved from, rather inevitably, Alvaro Morata.

 

Andrea Belotti, Leonardo Bonucci and Federico Bernardeschi before him had also beaten Unai Simon, after Manuel Locatelli and Dani Olmo traded early misses.

Italy's players raced to their supporters behind the goal, boss Mancini danced for joy with his coaching staff, and Spain held their heads in dismay.

Luis Enrique's Spanish team, whose tepid start to this tournament must have been some sort of smoke screen, would have been equally deserving winners of a gripping match.

They had 16 shots to Italy's seven, a dominant 70.1 per cent of possession, and their record of four in five penalty shoot-out triumphs in European Championship history seemed to bode well.

Yet that lone defeat came at Wembley, a full 25 years ago when England scuppered Spanish hopes in the quarter-finals. Luis Enrique was on the bench that day, an unused substitute powerless to directly impact the outcome, and history harshly repeated itself.

Italy looked for a while to be going through on the back of a glorious fast-break goal, clinically finished by Federico Chiesa, whose father Enrico played at Euro 96 for the Azzurri.

As the hour approached, Donnarumma clutched a tame Jordi Alba cross and put a plan into action.

Italy's players were crowded around their penalty area, as far as Spain were concerned, Alba and Co having spent the previous minute trying to plot a route through a thick wall of blue shirts.

And then suddenly the Italians weren't there, they were going this way and that, left and right, and the ball was going with them.

Donnarumma ran a few strides and rolled it to Marco Verratti, who dashed from the edge of Italy's penalty box and picked out a pass to Lorenzo Insigne tight to the left flank.

Forward, forward, forza Azzurri. Insigne threaded a near genius ball with the outside of his right foot behind the Spanish defence, and despite Aymeric Laporte preventing Ciro Immobile running through to score, the ball reached Chiesa. Eric Garcia stood off, allowed Chiesa to shift the ball to his right foot, and the winger lashed into the far right corner.

It was a goal that made Italy just the second side in European Championship history to have as many as five different players (Chiesa, Matteo Pessina, Insigne, Immobile and Locatelli) score two or more goals at a single edition of the competition, after winners France in 2000.

 

Mancini in his playing days was one of those footballers whose first yard was in his head, who would see things before others, who made up for a lack of any real pace with an abundance of awereness.

No wonder he looked exhilarated by Chiesa's goal, which came straight out of the quick thinker's playbook.

Mancini's one-time mentor Sven-Goran Eriksson told Stats Perform ahead of this game that Mancini was always a step ahead in his mind.

"He was able to see things way more quickly than any other player, even than me as a coach. And he would see that something could happen," Eriksson said.

"I like seeing the football played by Italy because they attack, they play the ball pushing forward, they don't play like tic-tac, tic-tac. They get the ball, they steal the ball and then go. They lose the ball, they fall back, they defend, aggressive."

This was Italy encapsulated against Spain, with the emphasis on the aggressive in the late stages, a tiring team resorting to what tiring teams sometimes must.

The Azzurri did not have a single shot on target in the first half, the first time that has occurred during the knock-out stage of a major tournament since their loss to France in the Euro 2000 final. They did, however, hit the bar seconds before the break, Emerson from a tight angle.

 

Italy's lead here lasted 20 minutes, Morata stepping off the bench and seemingly setting his tournament onto a positive course, after taking so much early flak in these finals.

Giorgio Chiellini, the 36-year-old captain of Mancini's team, was unable to keep pace with his Juventus team-mate as Morata sprinted past him to score.

The Morata narrative had more to give though, and it came as a surprise surely to nobody when Donnarumma smothered his timid penalty.

Jorginho was up next and Italy were home and hosed. They sat out the last World Cup, humiliated by failure to qualify, but these heavyweights of international football are back.

Mancini threw his arms around Donnarumma and Italy celebrated hard. England or Denmark await them in Sunday's final, also to be played at Wembley.

"Let's go back to Wembley, the dream continues," began Corriere dello Sport's write-up of this occasion.

When we talk about football coming home, and where its heartbeat lies, perhaps this year there's no place like Rome.

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