Like a head of state, Alberto Bollini stood at attention; medal on his neck, the Italian flag in his right hand and the trophy in his left, as he posed for the cameras. This was almost 30 minutes after the game was over, but he, and his players, were still on the pitch, jubilant and joyful after beating Portugal 1-0 in the final of the UEFA U19 Championship. After all, they were champions.
The 57-year-old had said he “believed” and now basked in the glory as hundreds of Italian fans waited deep into the night, dropping from their seats towards the glass fence that separates the stands and the pitch, to share in the great feat just chalked by their team.
The champagnes arrived belated but it was well worth the wait. When Cher N’Dour popped off the first bottle and ran onto the pitch, it didn’t take long for the other players to follow. The party was already in motion.
ITALY’S FLYING START
In the end, Italy stood tall. And nothing was ever going to stop them. There was still some minutes left when the Italian bench switched their attention from the game, signaling their fans to roar and cheer the team on.
That blue army in the stands of the National Stadium in Ta’ Qali responded with loud chants of “Italia!” “Italia!” “Italia” The job was done at this point and it was with sweat and a lot of running; a lot of hard work.
Italy went into Sunday’s UEFA U19 Championship final against Portugal as underdogs, having lost 5-1 to the same opponents in the group stage. But this was a different proposition altogether and Michael Kayode’s first-half strike was all that was needed for Alberto Bollini’s side to not only enact some sweet revenge but also emerge as champions of the tournament.
And it came under thoroughly deserving circumstances, as the Azzurini were the better side for large spells and created the better chances too.
Italy started the game in the ascendency, putting up a performance that was completely the opposite of the one that saw them battered by Portugal 10 days ago. The Azzurini also surprised Portugal by playing their most expansive football in the tournament yet.
Bar the opening game against Malta, Alberto Bollini’s side played it safe for much of the tournament, adopting a conservative approach rather than opening up and taking the game to their opponents.
Here, though, they were on the offensive from the start. And they created loads of chances too. Pio Esposito had the first big chance of the game when he was picked out by a teasing low cross from Michael Kayode but the striker failed to properly connect with the goal at his mercy.
Italy continued to press and, for almost half an hour, had Portugal’s defence under siege. Luis Hasa, Samuele Vignato and Kayode had Joaquim Milheiro’s side rattled with their proactivity and quick thinking in the middle, resulting in the neutralization of usual creativity Hugo Felix and Gustavo Sa, who both cut frustrated figures.
The Azzurrini’s dominance finally paid off in the 19th minute when Hasa dribbled his way into space before delivering a pin-point cross for Kayode to head home the opener. It was a deserved lead for Bollini and his boy, who had been flawless unless that point.
While Italy continued purring and creating decent chances – Cher Ndour, Vignato and Espositio all came close with their efforts – it took Portugal 27 minutes to finally test Italy goalkeeper Davide Mastrantonio.
That chance came when Rodrigo Ribeiro was put through on goal, but the Sporting forward hesitated, allowing Mastrantonio to beat him to the loose ball. Mastrantonio was quick enough to prevent a rebound after ballooning the ball out of play and out of the reach of Samuel Justo, who was ready to pounce.
ITALY CROWNED CHAMPIONS
For much of the first half, it was all Italy and that is exactly how the second half also began, as Portugal resorted to long shots, having struggled to create openings.
Milheiro’s side would, however, get on the front foot right before the hour mark, with two quick-fire chances that nearly caught the Italian defence off guard. First, Felix was left unmarked in the box but the 19-year-old was unable to direct his header towards goal.
Sa was the next to go close when he craved an opening from the left flank and unleashed a fierce strike, but the ball ricocheted off Alessandro Dellavalle, missing the goal by inches as Mastrantonio remained rooted to his spot.
As the game wore on, Italy shut up shop, ceding possession to Portugal and looking to play on the counterattack. This led to an onslaught from Milheiro’s side, who started to create more glaring chances. Substitute Martim Fernandes and Sa both tested Mastrantonio with a header and a long shot, respectively, but the goalkeeper was up to the task, diving low to make the save on each occasion.
Despite rining in the changes, Portugal’s best efforts were not good enough as they failed to find the equaliser. By being crowned champions, Italy have ended a cycle of losing in finals, having lost each of their previous three finals in the UEFA U19 Championship.
Credit: AIPS Media