Penalties were once again Spain’s undoing, as they bowed out of Euro 2020 with a heart-breaking semi-final penalty shootout loss to Italy. La Roja were superb for 120 minutes, but could only find the back of the net once in normal time before succumbing 2-4 on spot-kicks.
Bar perhaps the 6-0 thumping of Germany last autumn, this was arguably the best performance of Luis Enrique’s tenure as coach. His side dominated from start to finish, controlling the midfield, creating the better chances and largely containing the threat posed by an up-until-now marauding Italian attack. Pedri, Dani Olmo and Sergio Busquets were the standout performers from a display that lacked only one, now rather predictable, thing: Clinical finishing.
For all the (deserved) plaudits of Italy’s play this tournament, their goal came in typically old-school fashion. Mikel Oyarzabal missed two golden chances, but otherwise a Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci-inspired defence stood firm against wave after wave of Spanish probing. When a rare counter-attack saw Ciro Immobile through on goal in the 60th minute, you could tell what was coming. Aymeric Laporte did brilliantly to chase him down and snatch the ball away, but Federico Chiesa picked up the pieces, got the better of Eric Garcia, and curled sumptuously into the bottom right corner of Unai Simon’s goal.
Luis Enrique made a host of substitutions which at first seemed to disrupt Spain’s rhythm, but they soon paid dividends. When Olmo’s umpteenth brilliant ball of the night put Alvaro Morata through on goal, the much-maligned striker made no mistake and slotted home. Extra-time saw Italy effectively shut up shop, and when penalties came, Spain couldn’t quite hold their nerve. Unai Simon inspired early hope with an opening save from Manuel Locatelli, before the otherwise excellent Olmo fired over the bar. Morata’s hero arc would go full circle, a tame effort casting him as the very villain he had started the tournament as. Jorginho’s skip and jump sent Unai Simon to his knees, and that was that.
The first big talking point of the evening came before a ball had even been kicked. Luis Enrique opted to start without either Alvaro Morata or Gerard Moreno on the pitch, with Dani Olmo instead playing as a false nine. The RB Leipzig man was outstanding. Jorginho’s role of trying to pressure Busquets left space in front of Italy’s back line, which Olmo exploited brilliantly. Time and time again he dropped deep, picked up the ball and looked dangerous. He drove at defenders, threaded cute balls in and around the box and was Spain’s main point of attack. He probably should have done better with one early chance that Gianluigi Donarumma saved, but otherwise he was flawless. That he blazed his penalty over the bar was desperately cruel, but if he is able to replicate that performance more often, then he could be a key weapon at the World Cup next year.
“Has anyone seen what Pedri, and 18-year-old boy, has done? I haven’t seen anyone like that, not even Andres Iniesta.”
In his post-match press conference, Luis Enrique said what we were all thinking. Pedri is a freak. In the regulation 90 minutes, he completed all 55 of his attempted passes. All of them. Every. Single. F*cking. One. Most future superstars burst onto the scene in an explosion of unsustainable enthusiasm, 10/10 performances punctuated by 5s and 4s. Not Pedri. At 18, he plays like he is 28. Every game. For the 73 minutes that he was tasked with tracking him, Marco Verratti couldn’t get near him. His touch was sublime, his passing incisive and his vision futuristic. With Busquets pulling the strings from deep, Pedri did the things his Barcelona teammate did before age sapped his pace. When he wasn’t threading defence-splitting balls, or prodding no-look round-the-corner passes, he was chasing back, fighting for every ball. On occasion he even snuffed out dangerous counter-attacks. To be compared to Iniesta is the ultimate compliment, but for Pedri, it is also a slight disservice. He does everything and more, defence and attack, with and without the ball, losing or winning. One day he’ll be the best in the world, there’s no doubt about that.
They said it couldn’t be done
Laporte’s loyalty was questioned as soon as he changed allegiance from France to Spain. Pre-tournament plans were thrown out of the window when Busquets tested positive for Covid-19, and his presence was sorely missed in Spain’s opening two games. Morata was made a scapegoat early on for his profligacy in front of goal, so much so that his family received death threats. Many said Pedri was too young, too inexperienced, to start at a major tournament. Many said Dani Olmo and Pablo Sarabia weren’t good enough. Unai Simon overcame the worst moment of his career to become a penalty shootout hero. Lucho’s every decision was criticised, but more often than not, he was right.
Yes, there are things to improve. Spain won only once in 90 minutes, owing to a lack of conviction in front of goal. Their midfield has been superb, but in a major tournament, taking your chances when you really need to is what separates the champions from the rest. None of the centre-backs have been convincing, with Luis Enrique still to find his preferred partnership.
This team have cojones, and they are going places. To reach the semi-finals after everything they’ve been through, to come so close to defeating an Italian team that hadn’t fallen in 31 games, is testament to their togetherness, spirit and mental fortitude. For that the players, Luis Enrique, his staff and everyone else involved must take huge credit. “After nine years of crossing the desert, Spain are back”, Lucho said last night. He’s right. Continue as they are, and Spain will be a force at the 2022 World Cup.