Cesar Azpilicueta says Spain must keep Lorenzo Insigne and Jorginho quiet if they are to overcome Italy in Tuesday's Euro 2020 semi-final.

Italy head into the showdown at Wembley as the most in-form side in Europe after going 32 matches without defeat and winning the last 13 of those.

The Azzurri saw off Turkey, Switzerland and Wales to top Group A, before beating Austria in extra time and Belgium inside 90 minutes, in the last 16 and quarter-finals respectively.

Forward Insigne started four of those five games, the exception being the final group match against Wales, while Jorginho has been an ever-present for Roberto Mancini's side.

Jorginho has completed the most passes (364) of any midfielder at Euro 2020 so far and is fourth in the list in terms of passes in the opposition half with 249, behind Koke (269), Toni Kroos (271) and Pedri (305).

He is a player Azpilicueta is familiar with, the pair having helped Chelsea to Champions League glory last season, and the defender knows the importance of shackling his club-mate.

"We have a chat set up with all the Chelsea players, but it will be good to see him on the pitch on Tuesday," Azpilicueta told Sky Sport Italia.

"This is football. Sometimes you play against your team-mates when representing your national side. We will both give it our all to helps our teams reach the final.

"He is of course a great player both for Chelsea and Italy. It is important we limit his involvement. He likes to have the ball and control the game. He is a very intelligent player.

"The better we are at keeping him quiet, the more chance we have of controlling the game."

 

While Jorginho has provided an assured presence in the engine room for a much-fancied Italy side, Insigne has been receiving plenty of plaudits for his performances up top.

The Napoli forward was on target for Italy in their opening match and curled in one of the goals of the tournament in the 2-1 win over Belgium in Friday's quarter-final.

He has been involved in 13 goals in his last 15 games for Italy in all competitions – six goals and seven assists – and netted 19 goals in 35 Serie A appearances last season.

"He is not someone I know personally, but on the pitch he is very dangerous," Azpilicueta added. "He is a great player, very technical and fast.

"He always looks to work a one-on-one and is constantly communicating with his team-mates. We will have to defend as a team and attack as a team. We are aware of the strength of Italy's attackers."

Spain's performances have not been as consistent as Italy's, having drawn their opening two group matches before advancing in second place with a 5-0 win over Slovakia.

La Roja then held off Croatia 5-3 after extra time, becoming the first side in European Championship history to score five or more goals in consecutive games, and penalties were required to overcome Switzerland last time out.

However, Italy have beaten Spain only twice in their last 15 meetings in all competitions and lost 4-0 when the sides met in the Euro 2012 final in Kiev.

Azpilicueta has started Spain's last three games and is focusing on the positives ahead of Tuesday's clash in London.

"We did not start well in terms of results, but on the field we have always managed to dominate and control matches," he said.

Elaine Thompson-Herah, Nigel Ellis and Rasheed Broadbell were among the winners at the XXXII International Meeting of Athletics in Lignano, Italy on Saturday.

Spain greats Xavi and Andres Iniesta are inspirational figures for Italy's Nicolo Barella, although the Azzurri midfielder does not try to replicate their skill sets.

Barcelona legends Xavi and Iniesta formed a key part of the Spain side that won Euro 2008 and Euro 2012 – in which they thrashed Italy in the final – either side of lifting the 2010 World Cup.

While the Barca duo were more renowned for their creativity than goalscoring exploits, albeit Iniesta got the crucial strike in Spain's World Cup triumph in South Africa, Barella has established himself as a real goal threat for both Inter and Italy.

Indeed, the former Cagliari man opened the scoring in Italy's 2-1 quarter-final win over Belgium with a fantastic finish, teed up by some excellent footwork.

And while Barella is inspired by the Spain greats of the past, he finds it hard to compare his own game with theirs. 

"They had great champions who inspired everyone, like Xavi and Iniesta," Barella told a news conference. 

"It's easy to say that we were inspired, but all those who love football are. I have different characteristics, seeing me in them is difficult.

"The Spain side that won the Euros in 2012 had an incredible midfield. There were amazing champions there, here there are great players, but we hope we can reach their level and possibly do even better."

Italy inflicted a 2-0 defeat in the last 16 of Euro 2016 to gain revenge for their 4-0 loss in Kyiv nine years ago, and a final against either England or Denmark is the prize for the victor at Wembley on Tuesday.

"[Sergio] Busquets has been one of the best midfielders in the world for many years," Barella continued.

"Then they have Pedri and Koke. It will be a nice game, we'll try to beat their midfield and beat Spain.

"It will be a tough game, we are similar as we both want to dominate the possession. I hope it will be a nice game, we want to enjoy it in a fantastic stadium."

Italy did suffer a blow in the win over Belgium, with influential left-back Leonardo Spinazzola suffering a ruptured Achilles tendon.

"It was strange not to celebrate because one of my team-mates had suffered a serious injury," Barella said when asked about Spinazzola, who has travelled to Finland for surgery.

"It was the first time I didn't celebrate a win at the end of the game, all we can do is to make Spinazzola proud and celebrate for him."

Only three defenders – Andrew Robertson (nine), David Alaba (10) and Jordi Alba (11) – have created more chances than Spinazzola (eight) so far at Euro 2020, though Barella is confident that Chelsea's Emerson, who is set to replace the stricken Roma full-back, will prove an able deputy.

"Emerson and Spina have different characteristics, they are two great players and nobody is worried," he said.

"[Emerson] won the Champions League and he will help us as he's always done. He's played many games for us and we all trust him."

Spain's confidence in their own ability never wavered despite initial criticism of their performances at Euro 2020, according to Mikel Oyarzabal.

Real Sociedad winger Oyarzabal scored the crucial spot-kick as Spain beat Switzerland 3-1 on penalties after a 1-1 draw in Saint Petersburg to progress to the semi-finals.

Luis Enrique's side became the first team in European Championship history to score five or more goals in consecutive games after wins over Croatia and Slovakia. Indeed, Spain had not scored more than four goals in any of their first 42 matches in the competition.

However, their goal rush came after successive draws with Sweden (0-0) and Poland (1-1) in the group stage, and their profligacy returned on Friday when they managed 28 shots across 120 minutes, though only had the one goal to show for it.

Spain amassed 29 attempts across their opening two games, with 10 going on target, and though their quality was called into question, Oyarzabal insisted the squad always kept faith.

"Whether you have been unfair or not it is your point. We had plenty of confidence in this solid squad since the beginning," the 24-year-old said at a news conference ahead of the last-four clash with Italy at Wembley.

"We are together and it is a high-level squad. We were confident of doing great in this Euros and so we've shown it. Obviously, people are free to make their opinion, but we have never had any doubts. We have always had confidence in the current squad and we still have it."

While Spain have fired hot and cold, they have nevertheless scored 12 goals so far at the tournament, with Denmark and Italy (both on 11) their closest rivals in that regard.

 

The Azzurri have been one of the most consistent teams and surely dispelled any doubts over their credentials with a fantastic performance against Belgium on Friday.

First-half goals from Nicolo Barella and Lorenzo Insigne ultimately ensured progression, with Romelu Lukaku's penalty unable to inspire a Belgium fightback.

"It is going to be a very tough game. Italy has shown a high level," Oyarzabal said of Tuesday's showdown.

"I think they reach the semi-finals in a good shape, but we do too. I believe if we do the right things and we are efficient, we will have better chances to win. The most important thing is to be ourselves. Keep playing as we have done so far because I think we have played great games and we need to have confidence in ourselves.

"They are a great national team with top players, but I don't think we are lesser. We need to be confident. We can play a great game whoever our rival is. We are full of confidence in our plan and in what we will do."

Italy full-back Leonardo Spinazzola has set his sights on the quickest recovery possible after a ruptured Achilles tendon ended his Euro 2020.

Spinazzola had been one of the standout performers in the tournament and made a vital goal-line block to deny Romelu Lukaku during the Azzurri's thrilling 2-1 quarter-final win over Belgium in Munich.

But the Roma defender, who suffered cruciate ligament damage in May 2018 and has endured frequent fitness problems during his career, will miss the semi-final meeting with Spain after pulling up before full-time and needing a stretcher to leave the field.

Italy's Twitter account shared a video of Spinazzola's team-mates serenading him on their flight home and the 28-year-old tapped into that positive attitude in an Instagram post.

"Unfortunately we all know how it went but our  dream continues and with this great group nothing is impossible," he wrote.

"I can only tell you that I will be back soon!"

Italy boss Roberto Mancini began his post-match news conference by offering his sympathy to player who made himself vital to Italy's bid for glory.

"We are very disappointed and gutted for Spinazzola for that injury he didn't deserve because he was playing extraordinarily well," he said.

"He's been one of the best players at Euro 2020 and we are absolutely gutted."

 

Spinazzola recovered possession 23 times in the tournament, more than any other Italy defender.

But it was in attack where he gave Mancini's fluent side an extra dimension.

His seven chances created from open play are the joint-second best in the Azzurri squad, alongside Domenico Berardi and behind Marco Verratti (10).

Matteo Pessina and Spinazzola each average 14 metres per carry with the ball, with the latter out in front on progressive carries (9.5m) – instances of a player moving the ball vertically up the field.

Six of Spinazzola's dribbles ended in a shot, another squad best, and likely deputy Emerson will have considerable shoes to fill when Italy and Spain meet at Wembley on Tuesday.

Belgium head coach Roberto Martinez refused to comment on his future after the country's Euro 2020 elimination at the hands of Italy, insisting the situation is "too raw".

Italy booked their spot in the semi-finals against Spain after overcoming Martinez's Belgium 2-1 in Munich on Friday.

Nicolo Barella and Lorenzo Insigne put Italy two goals ahead by the 44th minute, but Belgium pulled one back before the interval courtesy of a Romelu Lukaku penalty. 

Despite going close, Belgium – one of the pre-tournament favourites – were unable to find an equaliser against red-hot Italy as the Red Devils lost in the quarter-finals of the European Championship like they did in 2016.

Attention swiftly turned to Martinez, who is contracted through to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar but has been linked with a return to club management.

"Well, obviously, this is a moment that is very, very difficult to speak anything else than the defeat and that we are out of the Euros," Martinez said. "As I say, at the moment, it's still too raw. And I do not want to say anything that it could be [seen as] emotional.

"At the moment, all I want to do is look back into this tournament and I would say that the players have done nothing wrong. It is the opposite.

"They did everything they could to get us as far as we can [at Euro 2020]. And now is the time to analyse and to assess. But, at the moment, the feelings of disappointment and sadness, unfortunately, is what is in my head now."

Belgium have faced Italy more times at major international tournaments (World Cup and Euros) without winning than any other side (five).

No Belgium player has scored more goals than Lukaku at either the European Championship (six) or the World Cup (five, level with Marc Wilmots).

Lukaku has scored 24 goals in his last 23 appearances for Belgium, including 22 in his last 19 competitive internationals.

"The feelings are what you can imagine, really - sadness and disappointment - because I do not think these players deserve to be out of this tournament," said Martinez. "They have done an incredible job to be prepared to be ready to go step-by-step every day, from the beginning of the tournament. And unfortunately, today [Friday], we faced a very good side [Italy]. I thought it was two very good teams in this knockout phase. And, unfortunately, the margins did not go in our favour."

Belgium star Kevin De Bruyne played despite carrying an ankle knock, though captain Eden Hazard watched from the stands due to a hamstring injury.

"The situation with Axel [Witsel] and Kevin [De Bruyne] and Eden [Hazard] going into the tournament, I think we managed it very, very well and you could see the attitude of those players," Martinez added. "They started to grow into the tournament and they have been a real bonus. They really helped us from the moment that they could be on the pitch.

"Obviously, injuries happen and it is unfortunate that Eden could not be on the pitch with us [against Italy]. But it was exemplary to see Kevin De Bruyne getting through whatever he would, to get 90 minutes with his national team and showing that he was ready to help the group.

"So, I think, for every 'Red Devil' fan, there is a real pride and understanding that these players did everything they could to try to get what we wanted to get. And unfortunately today, we faced a very good team [Italy] and, with two good teams, the small margins went for them. And that is a small difference and that happens in football."

Roberto Mancini described his Italy players as "extraordinary" after they booked a Euro 2020 semi-final spot with a 2-1 win over Belgium in Munich on Friday. 

Nicolo Barella and Lorenzo Insigne put the Azzurri two goals ahead by the 44th minute, but Belgium pulled one back before the interval courtesy of a Romelu Lukaku penalty. 

The Azzurri held on to extend their unbeaten run to 32 games, however, and will now play Spain at Wembley Stadium on Tuesday after Luis Enrique's side overcame Switzerland on penalties earlier in the day.

Italy have now reached the semi-finals of a major tournament for the 12th time – the only European nation to do so more is Germany (20 times).

The result also meant Mancini became only the second coach in European Championship history to win each of his first five matches in the competition finals after Michel Hidalgo, who won all five of his matches in charge of France at the 1984 edition.

"We deserved the victory," Mancini told RAI Sport. "The lads were extraordinary, and clearly we suffered in the last 10 minutes as we were really tired, but we could've scored more goals earlier.

"I didn't see 25 minutes of struggle at the start. There were chances at both ends, it was an open game. We only struggled in the last 10 minutes when Belgium started playing a long ball game.

"We had no minimum target. We just wanted to do our best. There are still two games to go, we'll see what happens.

"Let us enjoy this victory, then we can think about Spain. Congratulations to the lads, they did a great job."

 

Central to Italy's success was the colossal defensive display by Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci. 

No player on the pitch made more clearances than Chiellini's six, while the pair helped reduce the Red Devils to just a solitary shot on target in the second period. 

Bonucci expects a tough game against Spain but urged his team-mates to be ready to go into battle. 

"Now we can keep dreaming with our feet on the ground," he said. "Spain are a great team, but we started this tournament with a dream in our hearts; let's keep it there until the end.

"There are two matches to go, the most difficult will be against Spain, who play similar to Belgium. They again looked as if they might not make it, but they got back on their feet, so it'll be a battle to the end."

The one sour note for Italy was the late injury suffered by Leonardo Spinazzola, with reports in Italy after the game suggesting he had ruptured his Achilles tendon.

"Leonardo had a great Euros, whoever replaces him will do just as well," Bonucci added.

After two engrossing games on Friday, we have our first Euro 2020 semi-finalists.

Spain ended a nine-year wait for a place in the final four of a major tournament, but they had to do it the hard way once again, with penalties needed to defeat Switzerland after a draw in Saint Petersburg.

Then came arguably the finest match of the tournament to date, Italy prevailing against Belgium to set a new record for consecutive wins in this competition and continue their remarkable form under Roberto Mancini.

Here are some of the key data takeaways from day one of the quarter-finals...

 

Switzerland 1-1 Spain (aet, 1-3 pens): Luis Enrique's men are the Euros shoot-out kings

Switzerland's previous three European Championship knockout games had gone to penalties (against Poland in 2016 and France this year), so perhaps we should have expected another shoot-out here.

Things certainly looked to be under Spain's control when Denis Zakaria, in for the suspended Granit Xhaka, scored the 10th own goal of Euro 2020 – that's more than were seen in the previous 15 championships combined (nine). Three of those have now gone in Spain's favour: they got two against Slovakia in the group stage.

Xherdan Shaqiri steered in Remo Freuler's pass to become his country's leading Euros goalscorer with four – he has as many goals (three) in his most recent three games as he did in his previous 31 – as Switzerland responded well in the second half. Then came a crucial moment: a heavy challenge from Freuler, and a red card flashed his way. It made the Atalanta midfielder the sixth person to be sent off at these finals and Switzerland only the third side in the competition's history to score an own goal and have a player dismissed in the same game, after Poland (against Slovakia this year) and Czechoslovakia against the Netherlands in 1976.

Still, Switzerland stood firm. Yann Sommer produced 10 saves, the most by a goalkeeper in a knockout match who did not suffer defeat during normal or extra time since Ivo Viktor for Czechoslovakia, again in 1976. Spain fired in 28 shots in total, with substitutes Dani Olmo and Gerard Moreno attempting six each. They have struck the most shots of anyone at these finals without scoring (Olmo 16, Gerard 15).

Yet Sommer's heroics were not enough in the shoot-out, Ruben Vargas' miss allowing Mikel Oyarzabal to ensure Spain progressed from penalties in a Euros match for the fourth time, more than any other nation. One of those came against Italy in 2008, and another against Portugal in 2012 – each time, La Roja went on to lift the trophy...


 

Belgium 1-2 Italy: Azzurri clinch Euros record against favourite foes

Italy stretched their record unbeaten run to 32 matches and 13 consecutive victories to see off Belgium and reach the semi-finals of a major tournament for the 12th time, a tally only bettered among European sides by Germany (20).

Perhaps more impressively, Italy have now won each of their past 15 games at the Euros (including qualifying), which is a competition record. Had Belgium claimed victory, they would have reached that tally themselves.

Roberto Martinez's side might be the top-ranked in the world, but they have now faced the Azzurri five times at the Euros and World Cup without winning, more than they have against any other side. They may have feared this result was coming.

Nicolo Barella opened the scoring with his sixth goal in 27 international games – only one fewer than he has managed in his past 116 club matches – before Lorenzo Insigne swept home a quite stunning second. Romelu Lukaku got a goal back after the impressive Jeremy Doku had become the first teenager to win a Euros spot-kick since Wayne Rooney in 2004.

Lukaku had a couple of chances for another in the second half, but he could not quite muster what would have been a 23rd goal in his most recent 19 competitive internationals, as Roberto Mancini celebrated becoming just the second coach in Euros history to win each of his first five games in the finals after Michel Hidalgo in 1984.

Italy's resolute defending in the second half was built on the partnership of Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci, whose guile helped the Azzurri over the line. This was something of a showcase for experienced stoppers: the five starting centre-backs – Chiellini (36), Bonucci (34), Thomas Vermaelen (35), Jan Vertonghen (34) and Toby Alderweireld (32) – averaged an age of 34 years and 234 days.

 

As impressive as Italy were at Euro 2020 before Friday, much of that praise had been tempered – rightly or wrongly – by scepticism from some, with those suggesting their opponents to this point. and throughout their unbeaten run, had been sub-optimal.

It seemed a largely harsh assessment given they are playing at a major international tournament, though the unconvincing nature of their 2-1 extra-time win over Austria did bring with it a hint of doubt.

Regardless of whether or not the sceptics had been correct about Italy, Belgium – the number-one ranked nation in the world – were always bound to leave fans and pundits alike with perhaps a better appraisal of just how good the Azzurri are.

After all, there had been plenty of evidence to suggest Belgium had almost been the antithesis of Roberto Mancini's team in Euro 2020. While Italy had the most efforts on goal of any team at Euro 2020 (87, Belgium had 38) prior to the quarter-finals, Belgium were one of only two teams to face 20 shots in two matches along with Turkey, yet they had only conceded once.

But in Munich on Friday there only ever looked like being one winner, with Roberto Martinez's Belgium eventually running out of luck at the hand of a side that will take some beating, the Italians winning 2-1.

At least the pragmatism Belgium seemed to employ against Denmark and Portugal – when they only managed six shots per game – was less prominent here, as they reached that total by half-time.

But were it not for a fortuitous penalty just before the interval, a spot-kick converted by Romelu Lukaku, they would have been 2-0 down at the break.

Where Italy had perhaps lacked fluency against Austria, they were intensely impressive here – their ability to play straight through Belgium thanks to their exceptional ball-players in midfield was coupled with their desire to win the ball back, routinely having two men putting the pressure on.

Their press resulted in a tournament-high (joint with the Netherlands) two goals from high turnovers before the quarter-finals and a similar scenario led to the opener here, Verratti cutting out Thomas Vermaelen's pass out from the back and finding Nicolo Barella, who brilliantly held off a tackle before firing past Thibaut Courtois.

 

The Real Madrid goalkeeper's form had undoubtedly played a role in Belgium's progress as well, given his 1.7 goals prevented was the third-best in the tournament prior to Friday, though even he could do little to prevent Lorenzo Insigne's gorgeous 25-yard effort finding the top-right corner to make it 2-0.

Italy's approach after the interval seemed to relate more around keeping the ball, firmly aware that the less time Belgium had in possession the less likely they were to draw level. In the 24 minutes that followed half-time, the Azzurri's share of possession was 70 per cent, compared to 54 per cent in the first half.

That's not to say Belgium didn't trouble them. When attacking at pace they caused Italy some issues – Jeremy Doku beat Giovanni Di Lorenzo and played a teasing ball right across goal, but Lukaku somehow failed to net, with Leonardo Spinazzola making a vital block.

Then Dries Mertens darted through the middle and played Nacer Chadli into the same channel of the box, with his eventual delivery being deflected over Lukaku and agonisingly behind Thorgan Hazard.

But Belgium got to the quarter-finals mostly down to moments of individual quality, as highlighted by the fact their eight goals scored was way above their xG tally of 4.1, which was the lowest of the eight teams remaining.

And while Doku was a nuisance with this tendency to dribble, Belgium had little else to throw at Italy as it almost became Lukaku or bust. Their form had seemingly been unsustainable and their luck ran out in Munich.

 

Even if Eden Hazard had been fit, given his form over the past two years it is difficult to see how things would have been any different with him on instead of Doku.

Kevin De Bruyne was passed fit and his three key passes were more than anyone else in a Belgium shirt, but it would be fair to suggest he hardly filled the same talismanic role he has become accustomed to at Manchester City. While you have to take playing styles into consideration, he averaged 81 touches per game in 2020-21, but only 51 on Friday.

His average for Euro 2020 had been 74.1 per 90 minutes. Perhaps there was an element of Belgium playing him out of desperation without him being completely fit.

Either way, Italy's first-half intensity was what set the tone for their victory, yet it was their well-rounded nature as a team that saw them get the job done – the fact they still had more shots than Belgium despite already having the lead and playing with less attacking urgency being the case in point here.

For many, Euro 2020 was seen as the final chance for Belgium's so-called 'Golden Generation' to truly leave their mark on the international stage, with a title eluding them.

But they leave the competition after getting very few people excited, with Italy making something of a statement to those who until Friday had dismissed them as flat-track bullies.

Italy's superb Euro 2020 campaign continued on Friday as they edged past Belgium 2-1 in Munich to set up a semi-final clash with Spain.

Superb strikes from Nicolo Barella and Lorenzo Insigne put Italy two goals ahead by the 44th minute, but Belgium pulled one back before the interval courtesy of a Romelu Lukaku penalty. 

Lukaku went close in the second period, yet Roberto Mancini's side held firm in the first knockout meeting between the sides at a major tournament. 

The Azzurri will now play Spain at Wembley Stadium on Tuesday after Luis Enrique's side overcame Switzerland on penalties earlier in the day.

Italy thought they had opened the scoring in the 13th minute, but Leonardo Bonucci's bundled finish from Insigne's free-kick was ruled out for offside following a VAR review. 

Gianluigi Donnarumma denied Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku in quick succession midway through the first half, before the Azzurri went ahead in the 31st minute when Barella superbly lashed across Thibaut Courtois for his sixth international goal.

Italy doubled their advantage a minute before half-time when Insigne powered towards the penalty area and whipped into Courtois' top-left corner from 25 yards. 

Belgium halved the deficit in first-half stoppage time, however, Lukaku stroking home from the spot after Giovanni Di Lorenzo had pushed Jeremy Doku in the area. 

Inter striker Lukaku had a glorious opportunity to draw the Red Devils level on the hour mark, but his close-range effort hit Leonardo Spinazzola with Donnarumma beaten. 

Doku blazed over after a mazy run late on as Roberto Martinez’s side, who only had one shot on target in the second half, ultimately saw their Euro 2020 campaign end with a whimper.
 

 

Romelu Lukaku has found a home in Milan after firing Inter to their first Serie A title since 2009-10 and is a player reborn.

Now it's time to annoy the neighbours.

"Yes, I am staying," Lukaku told VTM at the start of this month, amid speculation over his future after the departure of head coach Antonio Conte.

"I feel good at Inter. "I've already had contact with [incoming head coach Simone Inzaghi]. Maybe I shouldn't say that yet … but it was a very positive conversation. There’s also the challenge of doing it again [winning the Scudetto]."

Those clubs reportedly keen on changing Lukaku's mind over just how settled he is at San Siro have been given fresh reasons to try over the past few weeks, with the 28-year-old in superb form to haul Belgium into a Euro 2020 quarter-final against Italy on Friday.

When the sides met at Euro 2016 and Italy prevailed 2-0 in a group-stage encounter, Lukaku was substituted after 73 minutes with the game on the line.

Consider the centre-forward's herculean efforts in single-handedly and tirelessly trying to drive Portugal back as Belgium hung on to a 1-0 win over the reigning champions in the last-16 and it is impossible not to imagine him sweat-soaked in the middle of the field when the final whistle goes this time.

 

The Conte factor

Conte was Italy head coach that day in Lyon and he took an unfancied Azzurri to a penalty shoot-out defeat against Germany in the quarter-finals

That subsequent Premier League was promptly won by Conte, freshly installed at Chelsea. He tried to bolster their title defence by signing Lukaku from Everton, but the player's decision to join Manchester United left the combustible tactician in a fury that never completely lifted before his exit as an FA Cup winner at the end of 2017-18.

Lukaku finished that campaign with what was then a career best 27 goals in all competitions for United, but the following season became a struggle as Jose Mourinho departed and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer arrived.

It was time for pastures new in 2019-20 and there was a serendipity to Conte ending a 12-month sabbatical to take the reins at Inter, aiming to bring down the Juventus dynasty he launched almost a decade earlier.

He got his man this time and Lukaku has blossomed.

In an interview with Gazzetta dello Sport before the St Petersburg quarter-final, Conte described the striker as a "force of nature" and he told L'Equipe: "Romelu, today, is one of the best strikers in the world.

"He always had immense physical and athletic qualities, but during the past two years together we have seen him grow even more in terms of presence on the pitch, teamwork, and composure in front of goal.”

Across all competitions in 2019-20, Lukaku scored 34 goals – the most prolific season of his career, which he backed up with 30 last time around. His expected goals (xG) per 90 minutes figure in 2020-21 was 0.76, another career best that indicates he is getting into better scoring positions and benefitting from a higher quality of chances. A shot conversion rate of 24 per cent at Inter also sees Lukaku breaking new ground.

 

The all-round development Conte alludes to is also clear. The 70 and 63 chances created in each of his Inter seasons again outstrip anything he has previously posted by that metric, yielding a personal best 11 assists last term.

Lukaku has also relocated his destructive capacity when it comes to running at defences with the ball, something that dwindled significantly at United.

Only in 2014-15 with Everton (145) did he attempt more dribbles than his 125 at Inter last season, while he never posted three figures at Old Trafford, slumping to a career-low 58 in 2018-19.

Familiar foes

Given Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard remain injury doubts, Lukaku's capacity to create for team-mates and himself might be crucial against an Italy defence that were breached for the first time in 19 hours and 28 minutes in their extra-time win over Austria.

Italy number one Gianluigi Donnarumma might not be too keen on the sight of the opposition number nine, given Lukaku's five goals against Milan in all competitions. Genoa (six) are the only Serie A side he has scored against more often.

Where Donnarumma might find reassurance is in the Juventus axis of Leonardo Bonucci and the fit-again Giorgio Chiellini in front of him.

 

While the veteran central-defensive pair's relative lack of pace means too many instances of the rampant, dribbling Lukaku that has re-emerged at Inter might spell disaster for Italy, the hitman's sparse record versus Juve suggests they know a thing or two about stopping him.

In five matches against the Old Lady for Inter, Lukaku has scored once from nine shots with an xG value of 1.4, a conversion rate of 11.1 per cent.

Contrast that with his record in the Derby della Madonnina, where his five goals have come from 24 shots (xG 5.2, 20.8 per cent conversion).

Such a record meant Lukaku was happy to proclaiming himself "King of Milano" after the Scudetto was secured, in a mocking dig at Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

If he can slay the country where he has enjoyed an incredible rebirth, he will take a giant step towards being crowned king of Europe.

Sven-Goran Eriksson heaped praise on "perfectionist" Roberto Mancini as the Italy head coach continues to oversee the stunning transformation of the Azzurri at Euro 2020.

Italy will face Belgium in the quarter-finals on Friday after setting a new national record by extending their unbeaten streak to 31 games thanks to a last-16 triumph over Austria.

A proud football country but a national team on their knees after failing to qualify for Russia 2018, their first World Cup absence since 1958, Mancini is the mastermind behind a drastic recovery following his appointment more than three years ago.

Banishing the nightmares of Gian Piero Ventura's dismal tenure, Italy have only conceded more than once in one of their past 18 matches at major tournaments, dating back to the beginning of Euro 2012.

They have conceded just 13 goals across these matches (eight clean sheets) with the only game where they did concede more than once coming in the 2012 European Championship final against Spain (a 4-0 defeat).

As a whole country unites behind 1968 European champions Italy, former Roma, Sampdoria, Lazio, England and Manchester City boss Eriksson hailed Mancini.

"Italy are playing very, very well," Eriksson, who coached Mancini at Sampdoria and Lazio in Serie A, told Stats Perform. "In the first two, or the first three games, they were the team that played the best football of all. Why? I don't know. However, they have many good players without any doubt, playing in top clubs, important ones.

"And then they have Mancini, Roberto. Clearly, he's been a manager for a long time now, he's been in Italy, he's been in England, in Russia I think, in Turkey as well. However, I knew, 25 years ago, that Mancini would have become a great manager. Because I've had him as a player for eight-nine years, and back then he already was like a manager.

 

"He was everything at Sampdoria: warehouse worker, cook, everything. And manager as well. Because he lives for football and it's always been like that for him. He is very curious – 'Why are we doing this during training?', 'Why don't we do this, or that?'. He would always come to me with questions about our training. And he was always talking about football.

"He's doing a great job, I understand it and I am very, very happy for him because he is also, in his job and I think in his life, a perfectionist. There are no half measures with Mancini. He is all or nothing. When he goes to training, he is all. When he changes club, like when he came with me from Sampdoria to Lazio, he was the same at Lazio. He was giving everything, and he wanted to win at any cost. He is a winning mind, a very winning one."

Eriksson added: "He is also a very generous man. For example, he would invite all the players and the whole coaching staff to the restaurant, once a week or every two weeks.

"Fantastic, fish-based, from Genova. And he would always pay, everything. He's a great man. I think very highly of him, and I am happy that he is doing very well."

Italy have reached the quarter-finals of the European Championship for a fourth consecutive tournament. Each of those previous three appearances at this stage have been decided by a penalty shoot-out, with the Italians eliminated by Spain in 2008 and Germany in 2016 while progressing past England in 2012.

Indeed, that accounts for three of a total of five European Championship penalty shoot-outs Italy have participated in – more than any other nation prior to the 2020 edition.

Italy have won all four of their matches at Euro 2020. They have never won five consecutive games at European Championship finals, while only twice previously have they won five or more in a row at any major tournament (World Cup and Euros), winning seven in a row at the World Cup from 1934 to 1938 and five in succession at the World Cup in 1990.

"I don't see a weak spot. Mancini, as perfectionist as he is, always wants to play good football. And maybe this is a weak spot," Eriksson said. "However, it's not actually. 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 is a kind of football that is very nice to see.

"It's clear that Barcelona, Spain, play good football. However, I don't like it that much, because there are a thousand passes before they decide to attack for real. I know that Mancini is not like that. Mancini wants to attack. I hope that this style gets to the end."

Roberto Martinez will decide on Friday whether Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard will play any part in Belgium's Euro 2020 quarter-final tie with Italy.

De Bruyne was forced off early in the second half of Sunday's 1-0 last-16 win over Portugal with an ankle problem, while Hazard damaged his hamstring later in the same game.

Both players have travelled to Munich for Friday's showdown with Italy, though neither took part in Belgium's final training session ahead of the match.

Martinez admitted on Monday it was unlikely either De Bruyne or Hazard would be fully recovered in time, and the Spaniard still remains unsure if either player will make the squad.

"As you know they have not been able to train today," he said at Thursday's pre-match news conference. 

"There is still another 24 hours to go and they are positive they can recover. It is now a race against time to make a decision.

"We won't make a decision until the last minute. At the moment it's impossible to say whether they will get fit."

Asked if he is playing mind games by making Italy guess as to the pair's availability, Martinez said: "We are trying to get them fit. It has nothing to do with games or arrogance.

"We are in tournament mode. If they are not available tomorrow, we hope to have them available later."

Injury-plagued forward Hazard has struggled for fitness over the past couple of seasons and Martinez appeared to suggest the Real Madrid man has less of a chance of being fit.

"For Eden, it's difficult as it's a muscle injury," he said. "For Kevin, it's another type of injury. It's a decision for the medical staff. We will then make a decision when we hear back."

 

The winners of Friday's match at the Allianz Arena will face either Switzerland or Spain for a place in the final.

Italy needed extra time to overcome Austria in the last round, with that 2-1 victory extending the Azzurri's unbeaten run to a new national record of 31 matches.

Roberto Mancini's side have conceded more than once in only one of their last 18 games at major tournaments, conceding just 13 times in total across that sequence.

Martinez got the better of Mancini in the 2013 FA Cup final, with Wigan Athletic stunning Manchester City, but the Spaniard is full of praise for what his opposite number has achieved.

"Italy are a great team," he said. "They press with many players and are very dynamic, with many players able to counter-attack.

"If I have to mention one quality in particular it is the synchrony. That is credit to Mancini and that is why they are unbeaten for so long.

"Italy and Belgium are statistically the best teams in the European Championship, and the teams that have won the most games since qualifying.

"It's a pity we're meeting them already, just like we faced Portugal too early."

Against no side have Belgium played more games at major tournaments without winning than Italy (four, level with France and Germany).

The only European nations Italy have faced more often at the same tournaments without losing, meanwhile, are Germany (nine) and Austria (five).

However, the Red Devils have won seven of their last eight matches at the European Championships – the exception being a 3-1 loss to Wales in the 2016 quarter-finals.

Italy head coach Roberto Mancini hopes Belgium duo Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard will feature in Friday's Euro 2020 quarter-final clash despite Red Devils boss Roberto Martinez suggesting they will not be fit. 

De Bruyne was forced off early in the second half during his side's 1-0 win over Portugal on Sunday.

The Manchester City midfielder was seen with ice on his left ankle while watching on from the sideline, where he was later joined by Hazard after the Real Madrid winger damaged his hamstring late in proceedings.

Martinez revealed on the eve of the game – the first ever between Italy and Belgium in a knockout tie at a major tournament – that it is "impossible" to predict whether the pair will be available to play a part in Munich.

Mancini, however, said the best players deserve to play in the biggest games and would have no issues should they recover in time. 

"It's always nice for the fans to see all the best players on the pitch; that's what makes football special," he told a media conference.

"We face the best team in Europe along with France, maybe the best in the world. They are on top of the ranking, but we'll try to win. 

"I respect Belgium, but we'll need to play as we know, we are aware of our qualities. Belgium are preparing for an important game and the same goes for us."

 

So impressive in the group stage, the Azzurri had to be patient before landing the decisive blows against Austria in a last-16 clash at Wembley that went to extra time.

Mancini's side prevailed 2-1 in the end, setting a new national record in the process as they extended their unbeaten run to 31 games.

"We knew Austria could create trouble for us and we knew it could have been the most difficult game because it was the first one in the knockout phase," Mancini explained.

"Every game can make you stronger if you improve. We suffered against Austria, but we had 27 shots. It was a tough game, but we deserved to win. There are no easy games, that's what the Euros are teaching us."

This is Italy's fourth consecutive appearance in the quarter-final stage of the European Championship.

Each of those previous three appearances have been decided by a penalty shootout, with the Italians eliminated by Spain in 2008 and Germany in 2016 while progressing past England in 2012.

Indeed, that accounts for three of Italy's five European Championship penalty shootouts – more than any other nation prior to the 2020 edition.

Italy and Belgium will meet in a knockout tie for the first time at a major tournament on Friday, with two European heavyweights ready to fight it out for a semi-final spot at Euro 2020.

So impressive in the group stage, the Azzurri had to be patient before landing the decisive blows against Austria in a last-16 clash at Wembley that went to extra time.

Roberto Mancini's side prevailed 2-1 in the end, setting a new national record in the process as they extended their unbeaten run to 31 games.

That streak now faces a serious test against Belgium, who knocked out reigning champions Portugal in the previous round. Victory did come at a cost, however, as both Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard suffered injuries in the 1-0 result.

While the Italy game may come too soon for the pair, Roberto Martinez retains hope they will be able to feature again, provided, of course, their team-mates find a way to get past Italy.

"I think they are the team that have played the best games," Belgium forward Dries Mertens – who plays his club football for Napoli in Serie A – said ahead of the fixture against some familiar faces.

"For sure the first three games they played very good football and they were very combative, it was beautiful to see them play."

Italy have reached the quarter-final stage for a fourth consecutive edition, and each of those previous three last-eight appearances at European Championships have been decided by a penalty shoot-out.

Considering the respective form of both nations – Belgium have won seven of their previous eight outings, going back to Euro 2016 – it would be no surprise to see the eye-catching battle go the distance in Munich.

 

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Belgium - Thorgan Hazard

There will still be a need for Italy to be on Hazard watch at the Allianz Arena: Thorgan – younger brother of the injured Eden – has been directly involved in six goals in his past seven starts for his country (four goals, two assists) and has scored in his previous two appearances at Euro 2020.

The Borussia Dortmund man could become just the second player for Belgium to score in three consecutive major tournament appearances, matching the feat of Marc Wilmots at the 2002 World Cup.

Italy - Matteo Pessina

Atalanta midfielder Pessina has scored in successive games, but no player has ever managed to do so for three in a row when representing Italy at a European Championship campaign.

Christian Vieri has done so at a World Cup previously, enjoying a four-game scoring streak at the 1998 edition. Italy exited at the quarter-final stage on penalties that year to eventual winners France.

KEY OPTA FACTS

- Against no side have Belgium played more games at major tournaments without winning than Italy (4, level with France and Germany). The only European nations Italy have faced more often without losing are Germany (9) and Austria (5).

- Italy have only conceded more than once in one of their past 18 matches at major tournaments, dating back to the beginning of Euro 2012. They have conceded just 13 goals across these matches (eight clean sheets) with the only game where they did concede more than once coming in the 2012 European Championship final against Spain (a 4-0 defeat).

- Belgium have won seven of their last eight matches at European Championships – the exception in this run was at the quarter-final stage of Euro 2016, when they lost 3-1 to Wales.

- Italy have never won five consecutive games at a European Championship, while only twice previously have they won five or more in a row at any major tournament. They managed seven in succession at the World Cup from 1934 to 1938, then five on the bounce at the 1990 edition.

- Belgium eliminated reigning champions Portugal in the round of 16 – four of the five nations to win a knockout stage tie (including finals) against the reigning European champions have gone on to win the trophy, with the exception being Italy at Euro 2016.

- Since Roberto Martinez's first game in charge in September 2016, Belgium have won more games (47) and scored more goals (175) than any other European nation in all competitions.

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