Turkey 0 — Italy 3
Italy emerged from Friday night’s opening match of the Euro 2020 football tournament in Rome as plausible contenders for the title. Their co-ordinated pressing game tired out the Turks and belatedly paid off with three second-half goals — the biggest haul for the Azzurri in a European Championship game.
A disappointing and overly defensive Turkish side barely got a chance on goal. Ominously for the rest of the pack, Italy are now unbeaten in 28 games since September 2018.
With only 16,000 spectators in the stands, the Stadio Olimpico was not exactly a seething cauldron and Turkey hadn’t come to enhance the atmosphere. Their tactic was to keep nine men behind the ball and hope to counterattack through their burly 35-year-old centre-forward and captain Burak Yilmaz. Turkey have more to offer than that, but their veteran coach Senol Gunes didn’t trust them to try here.
By contrast, Italy in recent years have aligned themselves with the orthodoxy of the world’s leading teams, playing an attacking pressing game in the opposition half. They have mastered the pressing aspect best, almost always robbing Turkey of the ball within five seconds. But good as the little Neapolitan Lorenzo Insigne is at seeing space between the lines, Italy lacked a world-class creative player able to break open the serried Turkish ranks. The first half was anticlimactic — overshadowed, in fact, by the tenor Andrea Bocelli’s prematch rendering of Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma”, a harking back to the 1990 World Cup in Italy when it was sung unforgettably by Luciano Pavarotti.
Finally, on 53 minutes, Italy’s winger Domenico Berardi, who was having a poor game, advanced into Turkey’s penalty area, and fired in a cross. Central defender Merih Demiral was insufficiently adroit to get out of the way, and the ball bounced off his chest into the net. It was the first European Championship to open with an own-goal — a start in keeping with the drab football up to that point.
But then Italy reaped the benefits that often accrue to a passing, pressing team: the opposition, tired out by chasing the ball, especially on a hot Roman night, and dispirited by going one down, starts leaving spaces open. On 66 minutes, an Italian passing move split the Turkish defence, Italy’s marathon man left-back Leonardo Spinnazola got a good shot in, keeper Ugurcan Cakir did well to push it out, and Lazio’s centre-forward Ciro Immobile netted the rebound.
The Roman crowd chanted his name, a reminder of the advantage that the nine teams playing games in their own country will have in this tournament with its unprecedented format of using stadiums across the continent.
Once the Italians were 2-0 up, they had no difficulties holding on to possession through their skilled ballplayers Insigne, Jorginho and the young Sardinian Nicolò Barella. At times in the second half, Italy looked more like a good Spanish team than like the Azzurri of old. On 78 minutes an amateurish pass from Cakir was intercepted, and Immobile found a totally unmarked Insigne, who got the goal he deserved — whereupon he was immediately substituted by coach Roberto Mancini, who knows he needs to keep him fresh for the serious end of the tournament.
With home games against Switzerland and Wales coming up, Italy can hardly fail to qualify for the round of 16 now, given that three out of four teams will make it from four of the six groups.
The Turks were free of ideas and did not have a threatening shot all match. On the rare occasions they got forward, they were silenced by Italy’s ancient Juventus centre-backs Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci, leaving 22-year-old keeper Gianluigi Donnarumma the gentlest of initiations at a major tournament. Turkey could still easily go through, but their president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a keen footballer himself, will have hoped to make more nationalist capital out of this team.