By Samindra Kunti in Enschede
June 15 – Spain reached their second consecutive Nations League final with a late strike from Joselu to defeat Italy 2-1 in an absorbing semi-final.
Italy and Spain began where Wednesday’s last-four encounter had left off – with some madcap, box-to-box action – as well as some late drama – to decide a thrilling second Nations League semi-final.
The Italians fell behind in the 3rd minute when Leonardo Bonucci, anchoring the rearguard, dallied in possession and Yeremy Pino, who had debuted against the Azzurri in the 2021 Nations League, side-footed a cool finish past Gianluigi Donnarumma, 1-0. The Italian captain’s blunder was all the more painful after he had called his time with the national team “a breath of fresh air.”
But his team soon drew level. In the 11th minute, Ciro Immobile, preferred over Mateo Retegui in attack, converted a penalty after Robin Le Normand was penalised for handling Nicolo Zaniolo’s centre, a brutal introduction to the international game for the 26-year-old debutant of Real Sociedad. Ten minutes later, Davide Frattesi, replacing the injured Marco Verratti, had the ball in the back of the net, but his goal was chalked off for offside.
The game settled down with Italy playing in a 3-5-2 formation with Immobile and Zaniolo up front and Leonardo Spinazzola and Giovanni Di Lorenzo on the wings. Out of possession, that morphed into a 5-3-2, but that defensive shape did not prevent Spain from creating havoc. At the other end, Italy also exploited gaps without testing Unai Simon too much.
Inside the first seven minutes of the second half, the Spanish came close repeatedly. Mikel Merino squandered a chance from close range before Alvaro Morata who swiveled, shielding the ball from Mateo Darmian, steered the ball just wide. Champions League winner Rodri’s acrobatic half-volley flew just over. Italy responded with a stinging attack of their own down the left, but an excellent reaction from Simon prevented Fratessi’s powerful close-range delivery from going in.
As the second half progressed and amid a flurry of substitutions the teams could not maintain the same intensity that Croatia, and to an extent the Netherlands, had shown in abundance in the first semi-final of the competition.
Instead, Spain dominated the possession in what was their best performance under new coach Luis de la Fuente with fluent and confident football. They improved markedly after the pause and were rewarded for their late pressure as substitute Joselu found himself at the right place and the right place with an outstretched leg to guide Rodri’s deflected shot over the midriff of Donnarumma and into the net.
On Sunday, the Spanish will go in search of their first Nations League trophy against Croatia after losing the 2021 edition against then-world champions France. Italy will stay in Enschede, condemned to face the host nation in the third-place playoff.
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