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Italy players and coaches celebrate after their side’s victory in the UEFA European Under-19 Championship 2022/23 semi-final match between Spain and Italy at the National Stadium on July 13, 2023 in Ta’ Qali, Malta. (Photo by Seb Daly via Getty Images)

U-19 Euro

They came, they saw, they conquered: How Italy demolished Spain to reach UEFA U19

The National Stadium in Ta’ Qali witnessed the best UEFA Under-19 Championship match to date. Italy became the biggest surprise of the tournament after beating candidates Spain in a football thriller that had it all: top performances, amazing shows of character, and incredible emotions. It was a memorable 3-2 victory for Alberto Bollini’s side, that will now face Portugal on the big final on Sunday.

Reality was very different for Italy and Spain. Before the third game of Group B, Spanish manager José Lana, with his team’s qualification already sure, he sent the substitutes to play in the last match of the group stage. The eleven for the meeting with Norway included only three players from the starting lineup; in addition, Yarek Gasiorowski, Manuel Angel and Dani Perez left the pitch after the first half. Opponents could only dream of such comfort. The last round of the group stage decided about their further fate, so there was no question of saving strength. Nine players, who competed with Poland for promotion four days earlier, ran to the semi-finals.

OUTPLAYED SPAIN Despite the circumstances, Italy did not look tired. Pio Esposito took just 12 minutes to head twice for Bruno Iribarne to make a difficult save. During the first 15 minutes, the Spanish goalkeeper had more work to do than in the entire previous phase of the tournament.

When Michael Kayode kicked the ball between Angel’s legs and shot, the Spain received another warning signal. And when, in the 36th minute, after Niccolo Pisilli’s shot and Iribarne’s intervention, the ball danced over the goal line, it was clear that it was going to be a very difficult night for the favourites.

Pisilli most likely would not have played in this match if not for the absence of Cher Ndour. The new Paris Saint-Germain midfielder was suspended for yellow cards, but his replacement was brilliant. Pisilli’s partnership with Giacomo Faticanti, supported by Luis Hasa in the defensive phase, made the Italian midfield function very well. Alberto Bollini’s team set up a wall in front of their sixteen-metre line, through which the Spaniards were unable to break through. Their only idea was Ilias Akhomach’s individual charges. The Spanish team had only one shot on target during the first half.

LIKE IN A BOXING RING It was six minutes after the break when Ndour jumped out of his place in the stands in joy. Samuele Vignato’s shot was powerful but not very precise. However, Iribarne made a mistake and let the ball go into the net.

Three minutes later, the Italian part of the audience screamed again. This time, however, out of indignation that the referee did not dictate a penalty when Esposito was clearly grabbed by his marker. The lack of VAR at the tournament was probably Spain’s ally in this case.

Immediately afterwards, Victor Barbera with a spectacular shot from the penalty area led to a draw. But the Italians did not care about the loss. Knowing that they were better than the Spaniards that evening, they kept trying. After Hasa’s shot and Iribarne’s save the ball bounced off the crossbar and was centimeters away from hurting the Spaniards again. In the 66th minute, Pisilli flashed again – Roma’s midfielder finished the individual action with a calm, flat shot.

Who would have thought that Spain would have to count on set pieces. When the game was entering the decisive phase, Gasiorowski cleverly directed the ball into the goal after crossing from a free kick. With 16 minutes left in the game, anything could happen. Literally, because it’s an unpredictable match.

Luca Lipani, who had come from the bench on less than 20 minutes earlier, converted a corner kick with a header. Hasa, one of the best on the pitch, made the second assist as Italy finally managed to knock out the tough Spanish side.

The celebration that followed was worth it. Bollini was soaked in water, as Italy, the team that had done the impossible mission, celebrated to the tune of Notti Magiche, the Italy 1990 World Cup song that marked a generation. Now, these players have the chance of writing their own history.

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