Belgium 1 Italy 2
Farewell then, to Belgium’s Golden Generation, who perhaps were doomed to futility as soon as they’d been burdened with the name. Who knows what they might have been achieved if they hadn’t wasted so much time under the management of Marc Wilmots. At least with Roberto Martinez there has been the sense of them groping towards something like their potential. And they’ll always have Kazan, and one of the great World Cup performances, beating Brazil in a World Cup quarter-final.
The likes of Kevin De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku, Youri Tielemans and one or more Hazards still have more to give, and there is great promise in Jérémy Doku, but Vincent Kompany and Radja Nainggolan have gone already, and nine outfielders in this squad are over 30. A wholesale clear-out, especially at the back is needed. And when all what remained was the fall, they fell gallantly, mounting a great late surge that proved this Italy can defend as well as attack, and produced probably the highest quality game of the tournament so far.
As they had against Portugal, Belgium were initially content to sit deep, rather than risk balls being played in behind a back three whose total age was 101 (although their average age was still less than that of Italy’s pairing; the mean central defender in this game was a 34-year-old with 108 caps). That meant out of possession that Romelu Lukaku was often alone as the front man, with Kevin De Bruyne, who had recovered from his ankle injury, and Jeremy Doku, replacing Eden Hazard, who had not, behind him.
In possession, though, as had occasionally happened in the last round, Belgium attempted something similar to what they had done in beating Brazil in the World Cup quarter-final, with Lukaku pulling out to the left and De Bruyne moving through the middle: a false false nine, perhaps – although the rationale presumably was to try to isolate Lukaku against Leonardo Spinazzola, the very attacking left-back.
That interplay almost brought an opening goal after 22 minutes, De Bruyne surging into space created by Lukaku's unselfish in-to-out run and battering a shot that looked bound for the top corner only for Gianluigi Donnarumma, at full stretch, to palm the ball away, a save of great agility and strength of wrist.
There were times when it felt like a strange kind of role play: Belgium sitting deep and looking to strike on the break like the Italy of old, while Italy played largely in the Belgian half, playing the sort of possession-based proactive football that was supposed to characterise Belgium’s golden generation. If the World Cup was that group of Belgian players drinking in the last-chance saloon, these delayed Euros feel like an attempt by a determined core to keep the party going, even if that means cans in the alley after last orders have been called in last-chance saloon.
Playing on the break suits them – it took another fine low save from Donnarumma to deny Lukaku after a clever switch of feet following another counter led by De Bruyne – but there comes a point at which a creaking old defence can’t be protected simply by shifting their position 10 yards deeper. The three veterans may have defended doughtily against a barrage of crosses against Portugal but the 13th-minute effort Leonardo Bonucci had ruled out for offside was a warning that set-plays could be an issue.
Sure enough, another free-kick lifted into the box after 31 minutes caused chaos. Thomas Vermaelen, in attempting to retain possession, poked his clearance limply into a central area about 30 yards from goal, where it was pinched by Marco Verratti. He fed the ball to Nicolò Barella and he smashed his finish past Thibaut Courtois and in at the far post.
Federico Chiesa very nearly added a second from another partially cleared corner, but a second did arrive before the break. Lorenzo Insigne's swoop in from the left and 25-yard drive into the top corner was stunning, but it made it easier that he was up against a defence that backed off with an uncertain shuffle.
The temptation at that stage was to start preparing the obsequies for Belgium, but a moment of charity from the Slovenian referee Slavko Vincic who decided Giovanni Lorenzo’s little shove on Doku in the final minute of the first half was enough to award a penalty. Lukaku, of course, converted.
As they had to, Belgium were far more prepared to come out in the second half. Doku, all whirring intent and flailing limbs, like a marionette in a hurricane, is a very different sort of player to De Bruyne and Lukaku, but the contrast works well.
It was his initial burst that worked a fine position for De Bruyne just after the hour. The Manchester City forward shaped his low cross just in front of the retreating Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini and Lukaku seemed certain to score. But stretching a little he scuffed his contact slightly, jabbing the ball into the ground and up into the thigh of Spinazzola from where it ricocheted just beyond his agonised second swipe and out for a corner.
There were other chances, balls pinged across the box, shots blocked, but Italy resisted to secure a semi-final against Spain. Spinnazola, though, will not be there with them having pulled up with what appeared to be a calf injury. He will be severely missed, but that was the only sour note on what was otherwise another exceptional night for Mancini’s side. The doubt about an unbeaten run that now stretches to 32 games is that it hadn’t featured a win over a side in the top 15 of the Fifa rankings: it does now. - Guardian