There’s a moment that comes deep into almost every international tournament match where exhaustion evolves from incidental to the defining feature. So many matches are played in such a short period of time, and every match is so intense and important, that players can’t help but hunch over their spent legs and hope for even a moment of respite from running. During Italy’s penalty shootout victory over Spain in the first Euro 2021 semifinal, that moment of debility came for the Azzurri with about 15 minutes to go in regular time, with nothing but a 1–0 lead protecting the Italian players from mental and physical surrender.
You could see it best in Lorenzo Insigne. The diminuitive Napoli creator, so often a bright spark for both club and country on the left wing, was dead on his feet after chasing Spaniards around for roughly two-thirds of the match. Despite Italy’s tournament reinvention as a side who controlled possession and created a ton of chances, the new-look side could not compete with Spain’s systemic adoration of having the ball. It is grueling to be on the defense for so much of a match, and Insigne wasn’t the only one struggling; he was just the most visibly tired Italian before his 85th minute substitution.
When a whole team is tired, and when it is then forced to play defense for long stretches, mistakes happen. It’s possible to blame the least tired player on the field, goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma, for Spain’s eventual equalizer in the 80th minute. After all, he did dive the wrong way on Álvaro Morata’s equalizing goal. But it’s more instructive to look at Giorgio Chiellini, who gets turned around and flat-footed by Morata’s give and go with Dani Olmo, and does not appear to have enough gas in his 36-year-old tank to catch up.
After Morata’s goal, it felt like Spain’s game to lose. Italy was already on its last legs, and now there would be 30 minutes of extra time? The final blow seemed imminent, but it never came. Perhaps Spain’s own exhaustion caught up to it, seeing as this was the Spaniards’ third straight foray into extra time. Or, perhaps, Italy had just enough to hold on after switching pretty obviously into “penalties or bust” mode as soon as the ball rolled in the first half of extra time.
That’s never the strategy you want to employ as a tournament favorite. It also isn’t the one you have to resort to purely due to substitutions, but the flow of this match made it so. Nursing that 1–0 lead, Italy started subbing on more defensive players. Meanwhile, Spain had been chasing the equalizer and ended the match with two strikers on the field, as well as Thiago and Marcos Llorente, two midfield players who can up the pace, the former with passes and the latter with speed. Italy could have tried some form of counter set-up, but with tired legs and Insigne out, reverting to its pragmatic history was the wiser move by its always impeccably dressed manager, Roberto Mancini.
Once the match got to penalties, it was a crapshoot. It always is. Sure, the team that goes first (Italy, this time) has an advantage, and Spain had the benefit of not having David de Gea in goal. But penalties are often a punishment for the team in the ascendancy for not sealing the game off earlier, and a reward for one that so clearly had nothing left to give. Spain tried, but failed, to win the game in extra time, and now it is going home.
In the end, the team that played the best soccer throughout the tournament is in the final, even if it got there on empty and with its newfound brazenness shelved in exchange for some of the old catenaccio. The Italian players were facing as difficult a task as they could have—defending a 1–0 lead against a team that does not give the ball away—and though it faltered 80 minutes in, it got just enough to push past the finish line. And hey, they still had enough energy to celebrate, which is half the battle. Now, Sunday’s final awaits, and I would be willing to bet that these next few days will be all about rest and recovery in the Italian camp.