Nicolò Barella, Patrick Cutrone and Federico Chiesa scored to beat Belgium 3-1, but Italy are still practically out of the European U21 Championship, as their chances of being the best runners-up are slim.
The Azzurrini needed to beat Belgium in this final European U21 Championship group game and hope Spain defeated Poland, but not by more than two clear goals, otherwise La Rojita would go top and secure a place in the semi-finals on goal difference. As it turns out, Spain won 5-0, so Italy are only second in the group and must wait.
There was controversy before kick-off, as Nicolò Zaniolo (who was suspended anyway) and Moise Kean were late to a team meeting and dropped as punishment. With Riccardo Orsolini injured, Coach Gigi Di Biagio scrapped the 4-3-3 system and introduced Sassuolo’s Manuel Locatelli.
It was a very aggressive start from Italy, but on seven minutes Nicolò Barella’s diving header was somehow wide from five yards on Giuseppe Pezzella’s cross from the left.
Once again, the Azzurri were dominant, but very open to counter-attacks, as Dodi Lukebakio stung Alex Meret’s gloves with a route one move.
Patrick Cutrone’s first touch let him down a couple of times, although on one it forced a save to prevent the own goal. Chiesa ran a risk when treading on the fingers of Alexis Saelemaekers, but it was not considered a purposeful stamp by the VAR officials.
As half-time approached, news had filtered through that Spain were already 3-0 up against Poland, while the confidence was visibly sapped from Italy.
However, they finally found a breakthrough on the stroke of half-time. Giuseppe Pezzella volleyed a cross, which Lorenzo Pellegrini nodded down for Barella and the first shot was parried by the goalkeeper, but the rebound left-footed flew into the far bottom corner.
Italy doubled their lead after the restart, as Pezzella twisted and turned to keep the ball in play and Cutrone steered Pellegrini’s cross from the left into the far bottom corner with a precise header. It was the Milan striker’s first goal in all competition since January.
They suddenly began to flow again, with Locatelli lunging at a lucky ricochet to skim the woodwork, then Mandragora’s scorching half-volley and a Cutrone close-range effort parried by the goalkeeper.
However, as Spain added a fourth goal against Poland, Belgium pulled one back with a stunner as Yuri Verschaeren curled a right-foot screamer into the far top corner from outside the box, giving Alex Meret no chance.
Gianluca Mancini almost added a third in the final stages, but his header from a corner bounced off the upright.
Chiesa did get the ball in the net with a scorcher as he cut inside down the left and smashed a right-footed finish into the far top corner. It was initially flagged offside, but VAR correctly identified he was level with the last defender.
Mbenza completed a nightmare cameo with his second yellow card for hacking down Chiesa.
So Italy got the result they needed, but Spain’s hammering of Poland means their odds of going through as the best runner-up in all three groups are extremely slim.
Belgium 1-3 Italy
Barella 44 (I), Cutrone 53 (I), Verschaeren 79 (B), Chiesa 89 (I)
Belgium U21: De Wolf; Cools, Bushiri, Bornauw, Cobbaut; Omeonga (Verschaeren 59), Schrijvers, Heynen, Bastien (Mangala 59); Lukebakio, Saelemaekers (Mbenza 74)
Italy U21: Meret; Calabresi, Mancini, Bastoni, Pezzella; Barella, Mandragora; Chiesa, Locatelli (Tonali 72), Pellegrini (Bonazzoli 79); Cutrone
Ref: Jovanovic (SRB)
Sent off: Mbenza 93 (B)