Between June 15 and June 29, the UEFA European Under-21 Championships took place in Sweden. Historically it has been a competition that has acted as a springboard for the superstars of tomorrow. Pierluigi Casiraghi took an experienced group of players to the finals with hopes of bringing the trophy back to the peninsula for an unprecedented sixth time. The Azzurrini were placed in a group containing hosts Sweden and many observers’ pre-tournament favourites Serbia. Making up the quartet were rank outsiders Belarus.
Matchday one – Italy 0-0 Serbia
In the group’s opening game, Italy was paired against Serbia in a fixture that would set the tone for the rest of the round-robin phase. Casiraghi opted for pace down the wings with attacking full-backs – captain Marco Motta on the right and Domenico Criscito on the left. A centre-half pairing of Marco Andreolli and Salvatore Bocchetti completed the back four, while Napoli new boy Luca Cigarini, Paolo De Ceglie and Claudio Marchisio formed a balanced midfield trio. Sebastian Giovinco would act as the fantasista supplying the ammunition for Roberto Acquafresca and Mario Balotelli. For Serbia, Manchester United’s Zoran Tošic was marked as the main danger to Casiraghi’s side. In a cagey first half the Azzurrini had the better of the opening exchanges and looked solid in defence, with the busy Giovinco proving to be the outstanding player, looking sharp from the outset he caused the Serbian back-line many nervous moments. Balotelli was having a frustrating opening to the tournament however and after 34 minutes was cautioned by referee Pedro Proença from Portugal. On 40 minutes Balotelli saw a good effort go narrowly past the post, much to the enjoyment of a partisan Serbian crowd.
As the second half progressed, the Inter frontman’s frustration was becoming evident and it was no surprise that Casiraghi replaced him with Ignazio Abate on 67 minutes. By now Serbia was in the ascendency and Bocchetti and Andreolli had to stand firm amid an ever increasing barrage. On 73 minutes the best moment of the match saw Andrea Consigli make a fine save from Nenad Tomovic to keep the scores level as the Serbian threat slowly evaporated. An exhausted Motta was replaced after 78 minutes by Cagliari’s Francesco Pisano. At the death Italy pressed for a precious winner with Giovinco yet again the focal point of all the attacking play, but alas, the breakthrough did not come. A blank scoreline was a fair result in the end, so Italy’s next match against hosts Sweden would now be a must-win game.
Matchday two – Italy 2-1 Sweden – Balotelli 23, Acquafresca 53; Toivonen 89
A much sterner test awaited Casiraghi’s charges for game two, as their opponents Sweden came into the match with a 5-1 demolition of Belarus under their belts. The Azzurrini kept the same starting-XI as in their opening match, so this was a chance for Balotelli to make amends for a lacklustre performance against Serbia. This time it was a role reversal as from the first whistle, Sweden, led by the impressive Marcus Berg, laid siege to the Azzurrini goal. The back four was once again impressive against an all-out Swedish assault. Rasmus Elm in midfield was orchestrating play and with Berg dovetailing nicely with strike partner Ola Toivonen, Atalanta goalkeeper Andrea Consigli was in outstanding form keeping the Swedes at bay.
But on 23 minutes the match was turned on its head as a wonderful interchange between Giovinco and Balotelli finished with the Inter striker curling a wonderful right-foot shot beyond the reach of the hapless Johan Dalin in the Swedish goal. Joy then turned to agony for Balotelli as 15 minutes later a typically rash off-the-ball incident led to a straight red card for the man whose reputation as a hot-head is starting to precede him.
The Azzurrini switched to a 4-3-1-1 formation as Giovinco played behind Robert Acquafresca who led the line on his own for the remainder of the match. The hosts, with vociferous backing from their supporters, were expected to come out in the second half and press the 10-men of Italy but incredibly, on 53 minutes, Italy doubled their advantage. A wonderful free-kick earned and then curled in from Giovinco was met perfectly by Acquafresca to send Casiraghi and his coaching staff into ecstasy. The match was now opening up as the Swedes pressed for a lucky break to get back into the contest. Ignazio Abate once again entered the fray, this time replacing the magnificent Giovinco and adding more steel to the Azzurrini ranks. Consigli continued to repel all Swedish attacks, while on 76 minutes Acquafresca was replaced by Bari defender Andrea Ranocchia to further protect the advantage. Daniele Dessena replaced Claudio Marchisio towards the end of the game to add freshness to the midfield. Almost immediately, the Swedes pulled a deserved goal back through Toivonen but the Azzurrini hung on to claim three valuable points. The other matchday two fixture finished goalless between Serbia and Belarus, leaving Italy’s qualification to the semi-finals in their own hands.
Matchday three – Italy 2-1 Belarus – Acquafresca 45, 75; Kislyak 45
Going into the final fixture, a point for the Azzurrini would see qualification secured to the semi-finals, while a victory would guarantee them top spot in the group. On paper it looked an easy task for Casiraghi’s men to see off the challenge of rank outsiders Belarus, but a cautious eye would be kept on the other fixture between Sweden and Serbia. In short, all four sides could still make the semi-finals. The Azzurrini had an enforced change to make with Abate replacing the suspended Balotelli as the rest of the starting line up was left unchanged form the previous two matches, the Coach sticking to a 4-3-3 formation. Ignazio Abate made a very busy start to the game on the right-hand side and most of the early attacking play for Italy was coming via this channel. On 10 minutes, Paolo De Ceglie took a heavy blow from Mikhail Sivakov and had to be replaced by Sampdoria’s Daniele Dessena in the heart of the midfield. Giovinco was struggling to make an impression on proceedings and for the first half hour it was a fairly even contest. As half-time approached, the first real controversial moment of the game occurred as a header from Salvatore Bocchetti was cleared off the line by the Belarusian captain Mikhail Afanasiev. Replays showed quite clearly that the ball had hit his arm but Swiss referee Claudio Circhetta remained unconvinced. Casiraghi’s men started to turn the screw, but on the stroke of half-time the underdogs took the lead as Sergei Kislyak drilled the ball past a helpless Consigli. As news filtered through that the Swedes were in front against Serbia, the Azzurrini were in serious danger of exiting the tournament at the group stage for the second consecutive tournament. However, in another twist three minutes into added time, Afanasiev once again handled the ball in the penalty area and this time a spot-kick was awarded. Up stepped Robert Acquafresca who coolly converted to ease the nerves going into the interval.
Italy came out second half with a real purpose about their play, they were in control of their own destiny once again, Giovinco was becoming more effective and it seemed the Belarusian fire had been extinguished. On 62 minutes Abate was replaced by Livorno’s Antonio Candreva, a like-for-like swap. Italy was pressing for the winning goal and with news coming through that Sweden was comfortably disposing of nine-man Serbia, a second goal was essential. On 75 minutes the breakthrough came as a slick move culminated in Candreva sliding a lovely ball through to Aquafresca who slipped the ball into the empty net. The Belarusian resistance was broken. A final change by Casiraghi saw Piermario Morosini come on for only his second appearance as he replaced Domenico Criscito on the left-side. As the referee called time, the relief around the stadium was palpable as a semi-final place against Germany came on to the horizon. The other semi final would pit hosts Sweden against the tournament’s surprise package England.
Italy 0-1 Germany – Beck 48
Surprisingly, this was the first time Italy had played Germany in a competitive U-21 match. Mario Balotelli returned from suspension with a ringing endorsement from Casiraghi: “I expect much of him because he can give so much,” was the assessment of the phenomenal talent from Inter. With Claudio Marchisio suspended and Paolo De Ceglie injured, Casiraghi reshuffled his pack bringing in Piermario Morosini and Antonio Candreva as direct replacements. Right from the first whistle Italy pushed the Germans back into their own half, Sebastian Giovinco orchestrating all things good about the Azzurrini’s play. On seven minutes, a fierce strike from Giovinco forced an unorthodox save from the German goalkeeper Manuel Neuer as he scooped the ball over the crossbar. From the resulting corner kick, Marco Motta thumped the ball against the bar and the Germans scrambled it clear. The Italians were applying more pressure with each foray into the opposition box. Robert Acquafresca was proving a handful in the penalty area and Mario Balotelli saw a great effort sail agonisingly over the crossbar. As half-time approached, Luca Cigarini smashed a shot against the body of Neuer and as referee Proença of Portugal blew for the end of the first 45 minutes, Casiraghi was left to wonder how the score remained goalless.
The second half started with an optimistic Azzurrini side hoping to secure the lead that their play deserved. But after 48 minutes a German counter-attack saw the Italian back-line retreat and full-back Andreas Beck unleashed a right foot strike from 30 metres that seem to deceive Andrea Consigli. The ball nestled in the right-hand corner and an ecstatic German side had taken a surprise lead. Yet there was still plenty of time for an Italian comeback. On 50 minutes Balotelli saw a free-kick go just wide as Casiraghi’s young charges looked to hit back immediately. However, the scintillating attacking play of the first period was lacking as the Germans looked comfortable defending their advantage. On 68 minutes Ignazio Abate replaced Candreva and 10 minutes later Alberto Paloschi entered the fray, with Acquafresca making way. It was all or nothing now for Italy but German goalkeeper Neuer was having the game of his life. Casiraghi’s final change saw Francesco Pisano replace captain Marco Motta. Time was ebbing away and as the game entered added time, Balotelli struck a wicked free-kick that forced goalkeeper Neuer, who was perhaps slightly unsighted, to make another unorthodox save, this time kicking the ball to safety. It was to prove the final opportunity for Italy. As the referee called time, Casiraghi was left wondering how his side had been eliminated – surely this was a missed opportunity for a supremely talented group of players. In the other semi-final, hosts Sweden came back from a 3-0 deficit against England to force the match into extra time. With no further goals, the match went to a penalty shoot-out with England holding their nerve to set up a final against old foes Germany.
Malmo’s New Stadium was the setting for the final. The Germans would be without striker Ashkan Dejagah, whilst the English were missing their star goalkeeper Joe Hart, along with forwards Gabriel Agbonlahor and Frazier Campbell, due to suspension. The last time these two old adversaries contested a final at this level was in 1982 – England emerging as the victors in a two-legged affair. England had the early chances with Martin Cranie heading narrowly over in the first minute. Theo Walcott, playing as the lone striker for England, then saw a shot fly just past the post. Germany was struggling to get a foothold in the game. Against the run of play however, Germany took the lead on 22 minutes when a fabulous slide rule pass from the outstanding Mesut Özil put Gonzalo Castro clear on goal, and he applied the perfect finish with a deft flick around goalkeeper Scott Loach. The match had turned in an instant as Germany grabbed the contest by the scruff of the neck. Özil was conducting his German orchestra and England desperately needed the interval to arrive.
As the second period began England was looking for a quick reply, but after only three minutes, Germany doubled their advantage. An innocuous free-kick from distance by Özil seemed to catch goalkeeper Loach totally out of position and although he got a left hand to the ball, he could only watch in horror as it trickled across the line. There was only one method left for England to save the match, and that was to pour forward in search of an instant riposte. A mazy run from James Milner almost ended in a goal for Adam Johnson but the German defence stood firm. Full-back Andreas Beck then hooked the ball off the line from a Lee Cattermole header. England was leaving gaps however, and Germany was exploiting them with the irrepressible Özil and Sandro Wagner looking dangerous every time they advanced forward. It was no surprise when a third German goal arrived on 79 minutes courtesy of an interchange between the Werder Bremen midfielder and Wagner, with the latter slipping the ball past Loach. Six minutes later, Wagner got his second with a wonderful right-foot strike. It was turning into a humiliation for England. Two minutes from time, Özil left the field to a standing ovation, having produced a magisterial display. The full-time whistle sparked wild celebrations from the Germans – it was their first title at U-21 level, and completed an unprecedented treble of youth titles at U-17, U-19 and U-21 levels. In an extremely open, enjoyable tournament, the consistency of Horst Hrubesch’s team proved the decisive factor and no-one could say they did not deserve their prize.
Italy at the 2009 UEFA European Under-21 Championship
Sweden 5-1 Belarus – June 16, 2009 – Malmo
Italy 0-0 Serbia – June 16, 2009 – Helsingborg
Sweden 1-2 Italy – June 19, 2009 – Helsingborg
Belarus 0-0 Serbia – June 19, 2009 – Malmo
Serbia 1-3 Sweden – June 23, 2009 – Malmo
Belarus 1-2 Italy – June 23, 2009 – Helsingborg
Final standings after three games – Italy 7, Sweden 6, Serbia 2, Belarus 1
England 2-1 Finland – June 15, 2009 -Halmstad
Spain 0-0 Germany – June 15, 2009 – Gothenburg
Germany 2-0 Finland – June 18, 2009 -Halmstad
Spain 0-2 England – June 18, 2009 – Gothenburg
Finland 0-2 Spain – June 22, 2009 – Gothenburg
Germany 1-1 England – June 22, 2009 – Halmstad
Final standings after three games – England 7, Germany 5, Spain 4, Finland 0
Italy 0-1 Germany – June 26, 2009 – Helsingborg
England 3-3 Sweden AET (England win 5-4 on penalties)– June 26, 2009 -Gothenburg
England 0-4 Germany – June 29, 2009 – Malmo