Punished by Spain, Italy awaits: A U21 European championship semi final preview

A 3-0 loss against Spain didn’t bother the Dutch U21 manager Cor Pot. ‘The idea was to give all first team players a rest. We didn’t count on the loss, but we knew it could happen’, he told the press directly after the game. Whereas the complete starting eleven of the Netherlands was rested, the Spanish gave seven substitutes the chance to show their qualities, and they didn’t disappoint. A very impressive performance led to a humiliating scoreline, and though it slightly flattered the Spanish, it was more than deserved. Isco and winger Pablo Sarabia were especially very impressive, while Real Madrid striker Alvaro Morata scored for the third consecutive match. Manchester United goalkeeper David de Gea kept his third clean sheet, with Spain the only team yet to concede this tournament. Netherlands’ Leroy Fer (04/01/1990) said in his post match interview that ‘it felt like they were toying with us’.  Hardly an ideal feeling to have ahead of the semi-finals, in which the Netherlands face Group A winners Italy. An introduction by Jack Sargeant.

The Italians

The excitement that had already built up around the Italy U21s has been amplified throughout this tournament, with coach Devis Mangia creating a team which has looked highly impressive in their group games. Both England and Israel were defeated in style, before a second string team salvaged a draw with Norway – enough to see the Azzurrini finish top of the group.

It is not just results but performances which have excited, with Mangia heading a one-man mission to prove that the 4-4-2 isn’t entirely an irrelevance in international football. Through clever movement the Azzurrini have been able to dominate possession, aided by a string of excellent passers in their starting eleven. The most prominent is Paris Saint-Germain’s playmaker Marco Verratti, whose quick feet and incredible vision and accuracy have seen him become the team’s heartbeat, and only when he has been pressed and marked tightly have Italy been prevented from effectively distributing from midfield.

Verratti will often look to play long balls wide to Riccardo Saponara and Lorenzo Insigne; Italy’s two nominal wingers, but both players who actually act more as inside forwards. Saponara played the entire Serie B season as an advanced, central playmaker for Empoli, meaning he has a natural tendency to drift in from the right. He is a clever technical player who will always be looking for one-twos and intelligent passes through the defence. Meanwhile, Napoli’s Insigne – who has been Italy’s star of the tournament so far – is more direct, and can often be found cutting inside from the left onto his stronger foot. His diagonal crosses and curling shots will have to be watched carefully. Good familiarity in marking will be key for the Netherlands, as it is through this fluid duo that much of Italy’s offensive craft will come.

Unfortunately Insigne picked up an ankle injury in the second group game against Israel, and rumours in the Italian media suggest he could only be fit enough for the bench (update: Insigne is likely to start). His replacement in that instance will likely be Parma’s Nicola Sansone; a quick, direct winger who will also look to charge in from the left before shooting on his stronger foot. With Sansone establishing himself as a Serie A regular already, even an Insigne absence won’t let the Dutch defence ease up too much. Striker Manolo Gabbiadini is expected to start alongside Ciro Immobile in a front two, with both being quite physical, powerful forwards. They were Italy’s top scorers in qualifying, and seem to have struck up a good partnership.

Florenzi scored, Italy celebrates

Florenzi scored, Italy celebrates

But, while there are no doubts about Italy’s attacking talent, there are certainly some defensive areas which could be exploited. Mangia seems to have settled on pairing Roma’s Alessandro Florenzi with Marco Verratti in the centre of midfield, with the former operating in a box-to-box role. He’s a good passer and can be frequently found breaking forward to supplement attacks, though this can leave the defence lacking in cover. With no real destroyer in the midfield, how Italy will cope with a quality central playmaker remains to be seen. Likewise, the space vacated by Italy’s full-backs – Giulio Donati and Cristiano Biraghi – could possibly be exploited on counter-attacks, as they venture forward to provide width lost when Saponara or Insigne drift inside.

However, having conceded only a penalty in the three games they’ve played so far, even Italy’s defence looks pretty solid. With five trophies in their cabinet, the Azzurrini have won the Euro U21 tournament more than any other nation. Having played so well so far, the Netherlands will have to be on top form if they are to ruin Italy’s chances of winning it again.

Pot pressure

Cor Pot has come under scrutiny lately, due to his controversial choices this tournament and the lack of fluidity with in the team. He knows the need to perform is higher than ever. ‘We lost to them in August (3-0), but with a different team than we have now. I am confident we can beat them, although I immediately admit they are a strong team. But so are we.’ There has been a lot of critique on his decision to rest his total starting eleven. ‘I think they have benefited from the rest. They look sharp. I have no regrets. But I am aware people will be asking for my head if things go wrong.’

Prolific Wijnaldum and De Vrij

Prolific Wijnaldum and De Vrij

With 10 senior capped internationals expected in the line-up, the Dutch have an experienced and strong starting eleven. They will be looking at their front line to make a difference, with Ola John, Luuk de Jong and Georginio Wijnaldum already having scored four goals between them. Wijnaldum has been the most productive, scoring two from distance and Ola John has impressed with his creativity. Luuk de Jong hasn’t been as influential as he would like, but came into his game in the second half against Russia. If he can keep up that level of performance, he should give the Italian defenders a hard time.

In midfield, Adam Maher will be the one creating the attacks. The 19 year old hasn’t shone yet, but the young playmaker is simply too good to keep his talents hidden for a whole tournament. His performance off the bench against Spain was impressive and he will be eager to justify the hype around him against the Azzurini. With Van Ginkel, who is on his way to Chelsea, and Manchester United and Napoli target Kevin Strootman behind him, the midfield is stocked with quality. To illustrate: Jordy Clasie, Leroy Fer are fully capped and 18 year old super talent Tonny Trindade de Vilhena of Feyenoord has already been called up by Louis Van Gaal too, yet they can’t break into the starting eleven.

The defense will see Daley Blind, Bruno Martins Indi, Stefan de Vrij and Ricardo Van Rhijn return, and since they have played together in the national team too, (albeit never together as a four) a sense of familiarity that was missing in the group game against Spain can be expected. PSV’s expected number one goalkeeper for the coming season Jeroen Zoet will take over his role between the posts again.

The final will carry a team in red in Norway or Spain. What will the other colour be? Oranje or Azzuri?

Italy – Netherlands will be played at 15 june, 20:30 CET at the HaMoshava Stadium in Petach Tikva (Israel)

A big thank you to co-writer Jack Sargeant for contributing. Jack is, among writing for other blogs, a contributor to SB Nation Soccer and a Parma fan, and can usually be found muttering angrily at Amauri. When not watching European football he’ll usually be studying the Argentina Primera División or glued to an obscure pro cycling stream, and will probably be tweeting about it at the same time. His twitter;

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