ITALY squeezed their way past Austria at Wembley last night to tee up a quarter-final with the winners of tonight’s clash between Belgium and Portugal after seeing off a spirited performance from Franco Foda’s men.
Roberto Mancini’s side had won many admirers for the manner in which they gracefully waltzed through the group stages, winning all three fixtures without shipping a single goal, but if those games were plain sailing, they soon realised that troubled waters lay ahead.
Austria were hard-working, disciplined and organized, and their defence was far less accommodating than the likes of Russia or Turkey. The Italians, by contrast, started the game energetically and on the front foot – but struggled to poke holes in a watertight Austrian rearguard.
Left-back Leonardo Spinazzola was again causing all sorts of problems down his flank early on as the Italians pursued the initiative but the Azzurri were restricted to the odd hopeful pot-shot from distance in a largely uneventful first half. Inter Milan playmaker Nicola Barella forced a smart stop from one-time Kilmarnock goalkeeper Daniel Bachmann with a low drive from the edge of the area and a Ciro Immobile snap-shot from 30 yards cracked off the post, but the breakthrough would not arrive.
Slowly, Austria grew into the game as they grew in confidence. Marko Arnautovic was tasked with leading the line and his bustling runs forward, combined with his clever footwork, meant the 32-year-old was a constant threat. He perhaps lacked the necessary pace to truly exploit Italy’s aging defence and the high line they often employ but what the striker lacked in speed, he more than made up for in guile.
Arnautovic blazed a half-volley over the bar in what was Austria’s only real chance of the opening 45 minutes but he continued to make his presence felt after the restart. Now it was Austria on the front foot, looking assured in possession and creating decent chances with encouraging regularity; Italy, by contrast, toiled in the final third and fashioned very little.
Arnautovic led the charge and after spurning a few half-chances, the former Benfica forward had the ball in the back of the net. A lofted cross-field ball was met by the head of David Alaba, who flicked it on towards the back post for his team-mate to nod past Gianluigi Donnarumma. Following a short period of deliberation, it was eventually correctly struck off as Arnautovic had strayed into an offside position.
Italy were rattled and Franco Foda’s men sought to take full advantage. As the game’s momentum shifted in their favour, they grew more daring in attack as the clock approached 90 minutes. Mancini turned to his bench to introduce Federico Chiesa and Andrea Belotti in an attempt to turn the tide as his team applied some late pressure but the Austrians swatted them away with minimal fuss.
The underdogs looked like the more assured side heading into extra-time, while Italy would require something special to turn the game in their favour and book their place in the last eight. Just a few minutes into extra-time, Chiesa did just that.
Spinazzola received the ball and brought it inside onto his favoured right foot, spotting the run of his team-mate peeling towards the back post. He chipped a delightful ball towards the Juventus forward, who used his first touch to cut the ball back and create an angle, and his second to drill the ball into Bachmann’s far corner.
Matteo Pessina, another substitute, grabbed his second goal of the tournament on the cusp of half-time to put Italy firmly in the driving seat. Lorenzo Insigne’s delivery was scrambled out to the Atalanta midfielder, who thumped the ball home from the edge of the six-yard box for 2-0.
The Austrians wouldn’t be deterred, though, and pressed admirably for a foothold in the game. They got one with seven minutes left to play when Sasa Kalajdzic flicked on a near-post corner and into the back of the net but it proved to be too little, too late.