Six days into Euro 2020, Italy became the first team to qualify for the knockout stages courtesy of two brilliant goals from Manuel Locatelli and another from Ciro Immobile, and a display of collective strength that should put the rest of the field on notice. Spirited and united, quick on the ball and ravenous without it, efficient and entertaining, this Italy team has been the revelation of the tournament so far, and here Switzerland had no answers.
There is something of Liverpool’s 2019-20 title winners in Roberto Mancini’s Italy side, a thoroughly modern 4-3-3 formation with daringly high full-backs, brilliant pressing wingers and an ability to control possession without ever fetishising it. Amid a carnival atmosphere at the Stadio Olimpico, Italy put the game to bed within an hour, stretching their unbeaten run to 29 games, of which the last 10 have been clean-sheet wins.
The 3-0 win over Turkey on Friday had been impressive enough. The real question, in the context of Turkey’s implosion against Wales earlier in the day, was whether they could mete out the same treatment to a superior opponent. That much was answered in a rampant first half-hour in which Italy tore into the Swiss with their characteristic fast-twitch attacks and concerted pressing game, deservedly going ahead through Locatelli.
Mancini had the luxury of naming an almost unchanged team, with Giovanni di Lorenzo replacing the injured Alessandro Florenzi at right-back, and Lazio’s Francesco Acerbi a first-half substitute for the injured captain Giorgio Chiellini. That aside, it was pretty much business as usual.
Jorginho, Locatelli and Nicolò Barella controlled the midfield; Leonardo Spinazzola was again an incendiary presence zipping forward from left-back. It was Spinazzola’s lovely spin and cross from which Immobile should have put Italy ahead after 10 minutes.
A disallowed goal by Chiellini – he had handled the ball shortly before slamming in Lorenzo Insigne’s corner from close range – offered only temporary respite. On 26 minutes, Locatelli stepped up to play a sumptuous left-footed ball, first time, out to Domenico Berardi on the right wing. Instead of admiring his handiwork he carried on running. As Berardi twisted and wriggled and crossed, Locatelli was in the perfect location to tap the ball in, having sprinted fully 50 yards to finish the move he had started.
Switzerland weren’t bad, as such: unlike with Turkey, you could at least see the bones of a plan, working the ball up the flanks before releasing Haris Seferovic and Breel Embolo up front. But as they patiently tried to build, they found themselves ambushed by successive waves of blue. With Acerbi and Leonardo Bonucci devouring everything in the air, the long ball was no sort of option either. And so, shorn of ideas, they simply sat back: bystanders in their own tournament game.
The second period at least began a little more equitably, as Switzerland pushed a little higher and enjoyed some spells of possession. This, too, turned out to be a cruel illusion. In reality this was simply Italy playing with time signatures, catching their breath, inviting pressure in order to create space for themselves. Six minutes into the half Locatelli again pushed forward into that space, collected Barella’s unpressured pass, and looked up to see Switzerland’s defenders standing off him.
So Locatelli let fly from 22 yards. It was the sort of sweet contact, the sort of ball flight, the sort of satisfying thwack against the net, that will have signalled to Locatelli that this was one of those nights: when the planets align and the wavelengths are just right and everything you do just works. Yann Sommer didn’t even bother to move.
And so, with victory secure, the informal part of the evening could begin. Insigne and Berardi were given the last 20 minutes off; Di Lorenzo put his masculinity on the line to block a shot from the disappointing Xherdan Shaqiri; Gianluigi Donnarumma, newly signed for Paris Saint-Germain, made a fine low save from the substitute Steven Zuber.
With two minutes remaining, Immobile finally got his goal, scoring from distance after Rafael Tolói won the ball high up the pitch. Two games in, Italy look like a team without a serious weakness.