MILAN: Ferran Torres put Spain into the Nations League final with a brace in a 2-1 win that ended European champions Italy’s world record unbeaten run at 37 matches in front of their own fans at the San Siro stadium.
Italy, trailing by two goals at the break, had to play the entire second half with 10 men after captain Leonardo Bonucci was sent off but showed real determination as they sought to avoid their first loss since a September, 2018 defeat by Portugal.
“This is what matches are like, sometimes certain episodes can influence them,” Italy coach Roberto Mancini said. “The first half could have easily finished 1-1... It’s a shame because we would have stayed with 11 men were it not for an error which you can’t commit at this level.
“It [defeat] would have come eventually. And better tonight than the final of the Euros or a World Cup final. But this game will give us more strength despite the defeat and help us realize that we are really a great squad.”
Torres’ second came after Bonucci was sent off for a second yellow card three minutes before the break for picking up a second yellow card for elbowing Sergio Busquets in the face during an aerial challenge.
Lorenzo Pellegrini pulled a goal back with seven minutes left but Italy, who beat Spain in the Euro 2020 semi-finals, failed to complete what would have been a memorable comeback.
“We’ve been playing good for a while now. We are a young team playing well and I think this victory is another step,” said Torres, who came off four minutes into the second half after picking up a knock but said he would be fit to play Sunday’s final against either world champions France or top-ranked Belgium. “Victory over Italy in Italy. Now well start thinking about the final.”
The match was played in a strange atmosphere as AC Milan fans in the stadium harangued Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma throughout his return to the San Siro following his move to Paris St Germain.
Donnarumma, who is considered one of the world’s best goalkeepers and won the Player of the Tournament award at the Euro, left Milan as a free agent in the summer and his departure left a bad taste in the mouth of supporters who loudly booed and whistled his every touch of the ball.
“It upset us, because it was Italy playing, it wasn’t a club match. They could have put it to one side for one match,” Mancini told reporters later. “Italy is Italy and I think it should come above everything else.”
Italy were in the hunt for more silverware while Spain were looking for revenge after losing to the Azzurri on penalties in the Euro 2020 semi-finals.
Barcelona teenager Gavi started, making the 17-year-old the youngest player to make his Spain debut after just three starts for his club — but there was no hint of his inexperience in a confident and composed performance.
Torres put Spain ahead in the 17th minute, steering a left-wing cross from Mikel Oyarzabal past Donnarumma into the far corner.
Donnarumma nearly gifted Spain a second when he fumbled a harmless Marcos Alonso effort against the post but Bonucci scrambled the ball clear.
Italy had chances to level the match and its best opportunity came 10 minutes from halftime as first Federico Bernardeschi’s shot was turned onto the post by Spain keeper Unai Simon before an unmarked Lorenzo Insigne turned Emerson’s cross wide from a great position.
However the hosts’ task was made much harder just before the break when Bonucci was sent off and Torres all but killed off their hopes of extending their record with his deft header from another Oyarzabal cross.
Italy ensured a tense end to a quality match when they pulled a goal back seven minutes from the end, as Federico Chiesa took advantage of hesitant Spanish defending, broke from the halfway line and slipped the ball to substitute Pellegrini to convert.
But Italy’s run was over and with it ended the dream of a Nations League title on home soil to follow their Euro triumph.
Published in Dawn, October 8th, 2021