Football

Italy have one foot in the final

I had never been a fan of Italy’s but Euro 2020 has transformed me. I cannot praise the Azzurri enough these days. As Italy are getting ready to take on Spain for a place in the final, there is universal acclaim for the way Roberto Mancini’s side have been playing.

They are unbeaten in 32 matches and have an all-win record in the last 13 without conceding a goal in open play. But statistics don’t tell you the whole story. And, team spirit cannot be quantified. Italy are full of players who put the team above self. Mancini deserves credit for assembling a group that is endearing as well as efficient.

Italy’s win over Belgium in the quarterfinal has made them genuine contenders for the title. They are no longer dark horses. It will be fitting if the Azzurri meet England for the big prize at Wembley on Sunday, for the two have been the best teams of the tournament by some distance. Alas, football isn’t math and anything is possible in a knockout match.

Mancini does have a few puzzles to solve. Ciro Immobile lacks the creativity to conjure a goal when the going gets tough while the absence of Leonardo Spinazzola owing to injury will leave a giant hole at the left-back position. The astute manager might try Manuel Locatelli in place of Spinazzola, even though midfield is the Sassuolo player’s territory. Immobile might keep his place in the starting XI, as there is no better option in the squad.

Marco Verratti, whose talent is beyond doubt, must bring his A game on Tuesday to keep Italy in the title hunt. The fire in the eyes of Federico Chiesa foretells something special. Two veteran defenders in front of a youthful goalkeeper give Italian defence a solidity that Spain surely lack.

Spain are a work in progress under Luis Enrique. They might evolve into a menacing side at the World Cup next year but a few crucial weaknesses hobble them now. Spain’s tally of 12 goals at Euro 2020 doesn’t mean all is well up front, as they are guilty of being the most wasteful side in the tournament. Against the well-drilled Italian team, such profligacy will not go unpunished.

Another major headache for the passionate manager is his less-than-reliable back line. From allowing Croatia to mount an improbable comeback to gifting an equaliser to Switzerland on a platter, Spanish defenders are doing more to drive up Enrique’s blood pressure than to look assured. Spain’s patented passing game might give the Italians some food for thought but the country that gave the world pizza should be ready to cross the final hurdle to reach ... well... the final.

Key players

Italy: Marco Verratti. The PSG midfielder has been the next kid on the block for some time and it is high time he made it count on a big stage.

Spain: Pedri: The 18-year-old pass master has already graduated from boy to man with flying colours. The next Xavi must raise his game against Italy.

Formation:Italy: 4-3-3. Spain: 4-3-3

(The writer has reported the Fifa World Cup from South Africa, Brazil and Russia)