Thirty-three games unbeaten. If Roberto Mancini’s Italy were a club, they would comfortably be celebrating a league title after that run. If they played in, say, the 17-team Bundesliga, they would be one match away from an invincible campaign.
As it is, Mancini’s Italy are one match away from being champions of Europe and the case for making them favourites for Sunday’s Euro 2020 final is strong. It is backed up by the resistance under pressure they showed against Spain in Tuesday’s epic semi-final, by their broad range of attacking threats. But as important, and as daunting for the next opponents, is that unbeaten journey that reaches all the way to September 2018.
Back then, Mancini had only recently been appointed as would-be rescuer of a patient in need of reconstructive surgery: Italy had failed to reach that year’s World Cup, a historic low point. He had won his first match in charge, a 2-1 victory in a friendly over Saudi Arabia. Italy won none of his next six. He suffered a defeat on his first away trip in a competitive fixture, to Lisbon. Portugal, without Cristiano Ronaldo, beat the Italians 1-0 in the Uefa Nations League thanks to an Andre Silva goal just after half-time.
That was 1,032 days ago. In those 33 matches since then, they have fallen behind only three times, always recovering to draw or win. They have scored more than 90 goals in that unbeaten run. They have conceded at a rate of less than one every two matches.
Dissecting those statistics three and half weeks ago, it was legitimate to focus on the identity of many Italy’s opponents over the last three years of disjointed qualifying competitions and friendlies, some of those games played out in empty stadiums because of public health conditions. There were a few pushovers in the unbeaten run. Moldova were beaten 6-0, San Marino 7-0. Liechtenstein conceded 11 goals across two Euro 2020 qualifiers, and poor Armenia were walloped 9-1 in Sicily.
But every goal stoked a growing self-belief. For an Italy who could not manage a single goal over 180 minutes of World Cup play-off against Sweden in late 2017, each goal put wind back in their sails.
After Tuesday’s gripping 120 minutes of 1-1 draw, plus shoot-out, against Spain, with 60,000 in attendance at Wembley, all that accumulated confidence bore fruit, although it was tight. “When you’re involved in such an intense tournament, there always comes a game where you have to dig in and suffer,” said Mancini, relieved that Jorginho’s penalty had swung the outcome, that Italy’s outstanding central midfielder and spot-kick specialist had carried all the coolness and authority from his distinguished tournament so far into the last kick of the night.
“I always said this would be the toughest match of the competition,” Mancini added, before looking back over the longer journey. “Almost no one believed we could do it, but the players believed, right from day one, that we could come up with something incredible.”
Those who were there at Wembley, part of a historically large crowd because of easing restrictions on gatherings, will also remember the night as incredible, as one of the great international tournament matches of the 21st century. More relevant for Mancini was the resilience Italy continued to show in the knockout phase, the stamina and worldliness to go with the free-scoring pizzazz of their group stage; 3-0 wins over Turkey and Switzerland, a 1-0 win with a much-changed side against Wales. And the certainty that, without the ball, they can keep order. They did so over 120 minutes against a determined Austria in the last-16 stage and in the 2-1 win over Belgium in the quarter-final.
Spain had been dazzling at times at Wembley, but as they passed their way into menacing territory, obliging Italy to retreat, they were confronted with 70 years of combined defensive knowhow in the form of Giorgio Chiellini and Leo Bonucci. Even for Pedri and Dani Olmo, who shone for Spain, that pair are a formidable sight. The sadness for Olmo was that he skied his penalty in the shoot-out. That moment, along with Alvaro Morata’s weak spot-kick, may come to be remembered as the proof that when it came to a contest of nerves, Italy’s were always going to be steelier.