For one night only, the Italy of old stymied Spain

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Jorginho's penalty was callous. Cunning. Contrary to what you might expect. Calcio as art.

It was everything the Italians were in smirking their way into the Euro 2020 final, burying their feet and siphoning Spain's flash flood attacking until only they were left standing after 120 minutes and a shootout at Wembley Stadium.

Sorry, you thought Spain "deserved" to go through? Because they were more prodding than plodding with their passing, and generated better chances because of it? Maybe so. 

Deserve's got nothing to do with it.

This wasn't the Italy that rebooted after missing the 2018 World Cup, mining Serie A's youth development factories and, at long last, tolerating error in order to grow a team that's in-your-face with its pressing and enthusiasm while remaining strong at the back. This was old Italy, the one that spent most of a century devoted to door-bolt defense, mustering groans like it mustered four World Cup titles. This was austere Italy, disinterested with the chances you might've had and the perception beyond the cold, hard numbers on the scoreboard.

It probably always had to be. Every match is self-contained, with its own mini-actions and reactions, but there's no question the Spaniards found a different gear since the tail end of the group stage. They wanted the ball, they were going to keep the ball, they were going to pin Italy back, and they were going to threaten the goal. Deal with it.

Italy did. It's impressive (and oddly comforting) the Italians still have this club in their bag. Credit the ageless center back duo of Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini, but don't reduce it to just them, either. Goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma, perhaps already the best in the world at his position and the showpiece of Paris Saint-Germain's ongoing defensive revamp, was only beaten by galaxy-class composure on the part of Álvaro Morata and made several crucial saves. Left back Emerson Palmieri filled in amicably for Leonardo Spinazzola, one of the tournament's breakout stars who injured his Achilles in the last round, doubtlessly thanks in part to the nerves he soothed playing the final group stage match. 

Manager Roberto Mancini rested several starters that day against Wales with advancement already clinched. He's pressed all the right buttons, not just at these Euros but ever since he took over three years ago. Mancini developed a reputation for businesslike tactics early in his career, but with Italy he's pushed that organization further up the pitch. He's also handed debuts to tons of players, somewhat out of practicality given how the program had stagnated. Still, when Mancini hinted at swerving the approach against Spain in service of reaching the final, was there any chance this refashioned squad wouldn't listen to him?

Make no mistake, Italy suffered for it. Possession was 70-30 Spain. Completed passes were nearly 3-to-1. It's taxing to shell yourself like that. 

Italy beat Spain on Tuesday in the Euro 2020 semifinals by reaching back into the past. (Photo by Shaun Botterill - UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images)
Italy beat Spain on Tuesday in the Euro 2020 semifinals by reaching back into the past. (Photo by Shaun Botterill - UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images)

When daylight came, Italy sprang forward. A counter that took 13 seconds from the moment the ball left Donnarumma's hand to the moment Federico Chiesa curled it into the back of the net. Suddenly, it was 1-0. Suddenly, Spain's margin of error shrunk further.

As such, Morata's moment of brilliance wasn't enough to win it, and 30 minutes of extra time weren't enough to lift either side's energy above puttering. So we went to penalties, whose calculus is indiscriminate and can often favor the team that maybe wasn't quite sure it would get to them.

Chiellini, after all, seemed exuberant Italy was about to enter a high-stakes shootout. Spanish captain Jordi Alba, by stark visual contrast, didn't.

Spain missed twice, including Dani Olmo's opener and Morata's fourth kick, after which Jorginho sauntered to the spot and coolly — perhaps cruelly — dispatched his opponent for good.

Jorginho acted like he knew he was going to make the penalty. Like he'd seen the future. For much of the night, we'd seen the past, an Italy squad that throttled down and defended like it had been there before.

Strangely enough, the Italians have only ever won the Euros once, and that was back in 1968. For all they've accomplished, this hasn't been their competition. It has a chance to be again in Sunday's final. 

The fun is still there. For one night, it needed not to be.

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