So this is how it feels. After three years in charge, having claimed a European Championship and set a new world record, Roberto Mancini finally tasted defeat. After 37 games unbeaten going back to Portugal in September 2018, Italy lost at last. Two first-half goals from Manchester City’s Ferran Torres set Spain on course for a win at San Siro and Sunday’s Nations League final against France or Belgium on this same stage. “Historic,” midfielder Koke called it.
It is not the same, sure, but it was revenge of sorts. Defeated in a semi-final at Wembley, Spain beat Italy back in their own home. Mancini had reminded people that Spain were the team they had most struggled with and it had to happen sometime, somewhere, but few expected it here and now. Luis Enrique’s side came with injuries and absences, debates raging, and with teenagers too, the 18-year-old Yeremi Pino and 17-year-old Gavi making their debuts. Yet, if they were assisted by Leonardo Bonucci’s red card just before half-time, they were superb.
They were also built in the image their manager – often questioned, often proven right – had demanded. “We’re going to go out there and attack because we don’t know how to do anything else,” Luis Enrique had said. The risks remained, he knew, and to start with Italy’s press laid a trap that Spain fell into. Three times they lost the ball in compromising positions in the opening six minutes, Unai Simón having to make a sharp save from Federico Chiesa’s and then an easier one from Nicolò Barella.
Spain’s manager is nothing if not stubborn, though. Bold too, shown by the inclusion of Gavi, who has played only 279 senior minutes in La Liga. The teenager and his new teammates started to get a hold of the game, and soon they were flowing. They took the lead early, Marcos Alonso finding Mikel Oyarzabal on 15 minutes. His wonderful cross found Torres. Leaping, he guided a side-footed volley into the corner.
Time to take the word “false” out of his job description: Torres is running at better than a goal every other game for Spain. That was his 11th international goal in his 21st game. Just before half time he had his 12th.
By then, Alonso’s shot had slipped through Gianluigi Donnarumma’s hands and against the post at one end, while a cleverly disguised Federico Bernardeschi shot was pushed against the post at the other. More important were the moments when Lorenzo Insigne missed a clear chance alone by the penalty spot on 34 minutes, and when Bonucci led with his arm on Sergio Busquets 10 minutes later, earning a second yellow card. That the balance had tilted was confirmed when a wonderful move involving Alonso, Pablo Sarabia and Oyarzabal set up Torres to head the second.
Torres only lasted four minutes of the second half, replaced by another teenager in Yeremi Pino, who was introduced as Torres made his way to the bench where ice was applied, but his job was done and Spain dominated still. Oyarzabal, outstanding throughout, had a shot blocked and then provided for Koke to have a go before Pino stood up a lovely cross from which he nodded just past the post.
Pino was making his debut and making the most of it, providing incision. He was enjoying himself on the right, teeing up Alonso with a brilliant pass that left the Chelsea full-back alone in the area only for Donnarumma to save.
That kept Italy in it and they weren’t going to give up their record easily. A break eight minutes from time made a match of it, Pau Torres making an error from a Spain corner and Chiesa running half the length of the pitch to lay on an easy finish for Lorenzo Pellegrini and set up a tense finale, but the end eventually came, three long years later.