Italy lean on rich heritage with time running out for Belgium’s golden generation

Italy lean on rich heritage with time running out for Belgium’s golden generation
The Azzurri implemented a savvy game plan to close out the quarter-final in Munich with the Red Devils running out of time to win with their current generation of stars

Time-wasting, over-selling contact and a defensive masterclass. After thrilling their way through to Friday night’s Euro2020 quarter-final, Italy pulled out a few of the classics to close out a 2-1 win over Belgium.

Mancini’s freewheeling side have charmed with their attacking brilliance, wedding young Bugsy Malone talents going forward with grizzled veterans defending the back. The former has brought a unique verve to the Azurri. The latter a foundation based on traditional strengths, and it was this that confirmed their semi-final with Spain on Tuesday. It was not pretty, especially the last 20 minutes, at odds with how they have operated in this tournament and indeed those previous 70.

Naturally, football fans on social media took up residence in one of two camps – “great banter” and “great shame”. The clip of Ciro Immobile’s miraculous recovery from injury after Nicolo Barella scored Italy’s opener went around the houses. Gianluigi Donnarumma was lauded/derided for cramming as many seconds into goal kicks. “Classic Italy” the sentiment, in two very distinct tones.

Much was expected of this fixture, and certainly a first-half containing all three goals lived up to the billing. But the conclusion spoke of a broader theme: of international football’s establishment wealth besting the nouveau riche.

Whatever your views on how Italy delaying in Munich, the familiarity of what they were doing and how they were doing it was a nod to their heritage. A nation of four World Cups and one European Championship and a broader history of tactical astuteness when it comes to the pitch and the laws. Like a lot of generational wealth, there is both the belief and expectation of success further down the line.

For Belgium, there was no such joy. The No 1 ranked side in the world had no tropes to fall back on, despite the richness of their squad. No effective way of harnessing some of the best players in the world to counter Italy’s game management. Even when they grafted to draw level at the death, you could see the fickleness of their confidence. A country who have not tasted the same glory as their opponents succumbed. This, to them, was the end of their journey, no matter how much they fought against it.

Of course, no article about Belgium is complete without mentioning “the golden generation”, especially the day after their exit. But it takes a step back to appreciate the burden of that term. It’s broadly a compliment: a group containing Romelu Lukaku, Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard, Toby Alderweireld and Thibaut Courtois is one to expect from. But the connotations speak of the travails before them: a lack of pedigree as a national team, and the desperation that this crop be the ones to atone for it.

It breeds an anxiousness, as England fans during the noughties will tell you. A team that has never known such glory finding themselves furnished with the most talented squad across the globe over the last five years. So good, in fact, it creates a desperate need for success. What if you never have it this good again?

Naturally, the aftermath will be centered around whether this golden generation was a wasted one. It won’t be a question that will ever have a definitive answer in part because Belgium’s stock in the global game has improved immeasurably.

Players of Italy celebrate their side’s victory as Romelu Lukaku and Dries Mertens of Belgium look dejected

They made the quarter-finals of the 2014 World Cup, the quarter-finals in 2016’s Euros, then went a step further with the 2018 World Cup semi-final, losing to eventual winners France. All while climbing to the top of the Fifa rankings.

Certainly, under Roberto Martinez, whose contract runs until the end of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, they are more attacking, even if that has not shone through this tournament. But this was supposed to be their trophy. And the scenes of utter despair suggested a little more than the losing. This was another opportunity spurned. The last, for some.

Is this the end for this group? Hard to say with a World Cup next year which presents one last chance to squeeze any remaining juice. But with nine outfield squad members aged 30 or above, including six of starting XI, there won’t be much left.

Given that age profile, it is hard not to reflect that 2016 was their best chance to cash in on this contingent. Alas, a 3-1 defeat to Wales that is more fondly recalled as a giant-killing with gain in prominence as Belgian Football’s biggest missed opportunity.

That is reinforced by the loss of Vincent Kompany and Radja Nainggolan, the dimming of Hazard’s light through a raft of injuries. Even De Bruyne’s physical state in this tournament. He arrived with an eye-socket crack after Chelsea’s Antonio Rudiger bumped the Manchester City midfielder in the Champions League Final. After the match, he revealed he played the entire match with a torn ankle ligament in the same right foot he injured during the round-of-16 tie with Portugal. It goes some way to explain how he faded in the second half.

A few months ago, FourFourTwo asked Martinez what he thought of the prospect of picking up a Euros and a World Cup in 18 months. “That sounds too easy,” he laughed. “This sport doesn’t give you those easy situations.”

Romelu Lukaku of Belgium battles for possession with Giorgio Chiellini of Italy

He is right. Tournament football offers no guarantees, and his job gets no easier. His most pressing concern is how to get the most of what’s left of De Bruyne’s prime having missed out on harnessing Eden Hazard’s.

Martinez will need to change his approach. Find new totems at the back and push the likes of Youri Tielemans to grasp more responsibility and give more room to Jeremy Doku to thrive after showing on Friday he loves the limelight as Belgium’s biggest threat on the night.

Qatar presents one final chance for some, particularly Lukaku (28) and De Bruyne (30) who will still be operating at a high level.

For now, with all the Belgian introspection to come, it is worth noting the strides the group has taken. The fact some golden generations rarely do as expected is not to say they do nothing at all.

Italy celebrate as Thorgan Hazard and Axel Witsel look on

They will hope they have shown the next crop to show that they belong at the top table of international football. Of course, if these players walk into the sunset without silverware, a country will forever wonder how and why they fell short.

At the very least they’ll have tropes and means ingrained by their play. Though they might not have finished the job, hopefully the future generations will build on their work to go one stage further. Small comfort but comfort nonetheless.