Federico Chiesa came on to the Wembley pitch with six minutes of normal time left and this tight, fretful last-16 tie still goalless. The story of the game to that point had been a stirring, finely wrought defensive performance from Austria, who showed great resolve against a team most expected to simply blow them away.
The final whistle came as a relief to Italy’s players, who fell into an angsty-looking huddle around their manager. Roberto Mancini’s message was to take a breath, to reset the throttle. And Italy did find another gear at last.
Chiesa’s first real act moments later was to burst through on the right and fire in a low shot. Moments later, with the clock ticking over to 94 minutes, he did something startling, creeping in behind on that same flank, controlling a high ball with his shoulder, skipping inside Martin Hinteregger, then absolutely spanking his shot back across goal and into the corner.
It was a wonderful goal, an expression of Chiesa’s own high grade cutting edge, and a moment of decision that Italy desperately needed after a woolly second half. Ten minutes later Matteo Pessina added a second, picking up a loose ball after a corner and turning to clip a wonderfully executed shot back across Daniel Bachmann and into the other corner.
Italy had shown resolve here to extract themselves from a gruelling game against a well-organised Austria. A quarter-final in Munich on Friday against Belgium or Portugal awaits. The sense of a team simply striding its way through this tournament was always going to fade at some point. But they will be stronger for this awkward experience, and for the relief of that burst of energy in extra time.
Wembley’s vast craning tiers were speckled with itinerant Italians and jobbing Austrians, small islands of blue and red in the middle of all those empty flip-up seats. And there was a fair crackle of excitement around the place for this last-16 game, the Italians in particular a bouncing, flag-waggling presence who seemed to arrive pre-delirious, already set to celebratory mode.
This trans-Alpine derby carries its own historical notes. What is now Italy’s national anthem was at one time banned in Italy for being too anti-Austrian, a legacy of Austrian imperial power in the region.
And the red and white shirts started with some purpose, carrying the energy from an excellent performance against Ukraine. Xaver Schlager was a busy, bruising presence in central midfield, and Italy seemed to take a moment to settle.
Roberto Mancini had come to Wembley with a midfield dilemma. Power and verve or soft-pedalled artistry?
In the event Mancini left out Manuel Locatelli and went with Marco Verratti, who had played so brilliantly against Wales.
At kick-off it looked a fearsomely coherent Azzurri team. Italy’s system carries no real mystery: a 4-3-3 with a marauding full-back presence on the left and well-drilled pressing. Stopping it is another matter, however.
But Austria were calm in possession early on, a willingness to play in Italy’s half opening up the odd mob-handed counterattack. Leonardo Spinazzola made one early dash down the rails, and another on 10 minutes that ended with a shot into the side netting. He is a prodigious physical presence, with something of Javier Zanetti in his cavalry-guard sorties.
For a while Austria’s right flank looked like an accident waiting to happen as Domenico Berardi linked fluently with Spinazzola Italy’s first shot at goal came from that combination with 16 minutes gone. Spinazzola raged away down the left once again and threaded a pass back for Nicolò Barella. His low shot was blocked by a scrambling Daniel Bachmann.
And suddenly Austria were under siege, the blue shirts buzzing with that familiar shared energy, eight outfield players fearlessly high. Hinteregger led one storming break out of the blockades. His pass to Marko Arnautovic was slightly off. Arnautovic, as ever the artist, the maestro, the sulk, let him know.
Italy were pushing. With 31 minutes gone Ciro Immobile turned and pinged a wonderful dipping shot on to the top of the post. Another Spinazzola surge followed by a weak, trickling shot forced a low Bachmann save. And by the break Italy had mustered 11 attempts at goal to Austria’s one and generated periods of smothering dominance, without finding the precise moment of incision.
Austria started the second half brightly, keeping the ball, then forcing a free-kick as Gianni Di Lorenzo was booked for a foul right on the edge of the Italy box. David Alaba spun the ball up over the wall, but couldn’t make it drop under the bar.
In a way there was no pressure at all here for Franco Foda’s team: Wembley in June for a one-off against the tournament’s alpha dogs, and steadily they began to assert themselves. It was above all a fine defensive performance from Austria, who after those early alarms nailed down the threat of Italy’s left side, and left Mancini’s team looking a little toothless, lacking other avenues of creativity. Foda has an Italian father. There was an element of the old double-bolt about this.
On 64 minutes Austria seemed to have taken the lead, thanks to a fine headed finish from Arnautovic, but it was ruled out after a VAR check for a very slim offside. A good job too. Italy had looked crushed walking back for the kick-off. Mancini acted instantly, taking off Verratti and replacing him with Locatelli.
As the 90 minutes ticked away it was all Austria, those red shirts popping the ball around, Marcel Sabitzer spinning and twirling and providing the linking joint for a series of fluent attacks. For a while Italy took a breath at Wembley, the press now dropped into standby mode, midfield and attack separated by a wide swathe of green. Mancini strolled his touchline, plotting his changes.
He played his hand beautifully. But there was still time for a late alarm as Sasa Kalajdzic pulled a goal back for Austria, who pressed with great heart and spirit even at 2-0 down.