In the end, it all came down to one kick. One kick from Jorginho, for everything. Earlier misses by Dani Olmo and Álvaro Morata had put Italy in prime position to qualify for Sunday’s final against England or Denmark. With a calmness belying the enormity of the moment, Jorginho rolled the ball into the corner to conclude almost three hours of the highest tension, and break Spanish hearts.
It was a semi-final that would have been a worthy final, a game that pulsed and throbbed like a human heart. Spain played probably their best game of the tournament; Italy managed to hold them at bay without ever quite hitting the heights of their earlier matches. Morata’s cool late finish, cancelling out Federico Chiesa’s goal on the hour, turned out to be only the start of the drama at a whooping, enthralled, drained Wembley.
The national stadium was a vivid and dramatic fiesta of watercolour under the lights: sodden Spanish white and drenched Italian blue on a pitch softened and slickened by a day and a night of rain. It was a game of dazzling technical quality, a game played largely on the floor, a game to epitomise the very best of international football. In the stands, at least, the Azzurri were decisively in the majority, barracking the long Spanish spells of possession, erupting on the occasions when Italy threatened the high back-line, howling when Emerson’s deflected shot kissed the crossbar on the stroke of half-time.
This Spain team are a slightly more chaotic evolution of their more controlled, garlanded predecessors of a decade ago: full of the regulation craft and cleverness but with just the faintest whiff of calamity at the core, typified by the frequent sight of Unai Simón racing out of his goal like a Sunday ringer with designs on a central midfield berth. Sometimes he got the ball; sometimes, more alarmingly, he did not. One such occasion saw Emerson pass to Ciro Immobile with the goal still untended, only for Immobile to hesitate over the shot.
For all this, Spain were marginally the better side in the opening half. The battle for midfield felt so important: you could see that in the scything tackles of Marco Verratti and the full-throttle pressing of Nicolò Barella. But after a broken opening, Spain largely took control of the central areas through the wise and economical Sergio Busquets and the brilliant Barcelona teenager Pedri, who with his airy first touch and lightning switches of play evokes Andrés Iniesta on four cans of Red Bull. It was these last two who combined for a good early chance that Mikel Oyarzabal squandered with a poor first touch.
Luis Enrique had sprung a surprise up front. Earlier in the tournament he had defended the beleaguered Morata by insisting that his team would be “Morata and 10 others”.
Now the Juventus striker took his place alongside 11 others on the bench, replaced by the young Real Sociedad captain Oyarzabal: perhaps after Luis Enrique had seen how well Italy dealt with a conventional target man in Romelu Lukaku in the quarter-final against Belgium. Yet Oyarzabal missed at least three good chances in that first half, with Ferran Torres also dragging a shot wide from 20 yards.
Maybe it was a calculated gamble by Luis Enrique to up the stakes again at half-time, ordering Spain to move the ball more quickly to their wide players in an attempt to stretch the play. This they duly did, and Busquets whistled a shot just over early in the second half, but crucially it also gave Italy more space to work with. Since early in the game the speed of Italy’s counterattacks had opened fissures in the Spanish defence. The question was whether a fissure would be enough.
It was only a fissure through which Lorenzo Insigne slid a brilliant pass to Immobile on the hour. Aymeric Laporte slid in to tackle, but the ball broke to Chiesa, with only a fissure of an opening to shoot through. Chiesa’s shot – a right-footed curling effort that is becoming Italy’s calling card at these championships – was utterly perfect. In a moment Wembley was a sea of delirious blue shirts. On the touchline Luis Enrique clapped grandiosely. A few yards away Mancini kept his counsel, like a man who had seen how this was all going to end, but was not telling a soul.
Perhaps he had glimpsed the twist. With 10 minutes remaining, Morata received the ball, turned and ran, slipped it to the excellent Olmo and got it back. Now with one touch he rolled the ball past Gianluigi Donnarumma, gathered himself behind the goal and accepted the grace of this moment: a man finally at peace, for a little while at least.
Extra time was an unruly circus. Spain continued to push against a tiring Italy, sweeping up the second balls: Olmo’s shot deflected through a thicket of legs and bounced just wide with Donnarumma nowhere. Domenico Berardi had a goal ruled out for offside. But as time leaked away the inevitability of penalties loomed ever larger, until finally they could no longer be escaped.