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3 things we learned from Belgium v. Italy

Joe Prince-Wright, Andy Edwards and Nick Mendola look ahead to the EURO 2020 quarterfinals, outlining how the bracket shaped up with England-Ukraine, Spain-Switzerland, Belgium-Italy and Denmark-Czech Republic.

Nicolo Barella and Lorenzo Insigne powered Italy to a quarterfinal victory over Belgium, in what will perhaps go down as the game of the tournament at EURO 2020, in Munich, Germany, on Friday.

[ MORE: EURO 2020 hub ]

Romelu Lukaku scored from the penalty spot to bring Belgium back to 2-1, but that’s as close as the world’s no. 1-ranked side would get.

[ MORE: 3 things we learned from Spain - Switzerland ]

Up next for Italy is a semifinal clash with Spain, in London, on Tuesday (3 pm ET).

Three things we learned: Belgium - Italy

1. Felt like the final: Belgium and Italy only needed 45 minutes to put on a show thoroughly deserving of being the final of EURO 2020, sadly played two rounds too early in the quarterfinals. The first half featured a pair of fantastic goals from Italy, quickly followed by a massive momentum swing back to Belgium seconds before halftime. There was, of course, still a second half to be played, and the world was treated to another heart-pounding back-and-forth which could have easily seen the game finish 4-1 or 2-4 — anything felt more likely than the 2-1 final score which played out in reality.

2. Italy’s press pays off again: We’ve talked about Italy’s newfound love of the high press throughout EURO 2020, and it paid massive dividends again on Friday. In years gone by, they might have simply afforded Belgium the time and space required to comfortably pass the ball out of their own penalty area, but Italy relentlessly harassed and harried in the 31st minute until they had, finally, won the ball back in a hugely advantageous area. Marco Verratti got the credit because Jan Vertonghen passed it straight to him, but three white shirts were within five yards of the ball when it was desperately played forward.

3. A wholly different test awaits: This Belgium squad is full of brilliant, dynamic attacking stars capable of turning your world upside down with an unexpected moment of magic, whereas the Spain side that Italy will face on Tuesday is full of on-ball technicians who operate at a considerably lower tempo, but much more methodically and carefully. It’s one thing to succeed in pressing a side that looks to go, go, go, but it’s a different task altogether to press the un-press-able.

Man of the match: Nicolo Barella - A goal, an assist and another sensational performance, from beginning to end, by a 24-year-old around whom Italy might just be able to build a midfield (and team) in 2022, 2024 and 2026.

Italy thought they had scored a 13th-minute opener, when Leonardo Bonucci bundled Insinge’s free kick past Thibaut Courtois, but Bonnuci was ahead of the ball and Giovanni Di Lorenzo when his Azzurri teammate helped it on with the slightest touch. The celebrations were short-lived as the VAR returned a swift verdict.

Belgium’s first chance didn’t come until the 22nd minute, but it signaled a period of dominance in which the Red Devils surely needed to score, led by their two star men. First, De Bruyne received the ball right on the halfway line and surged forward, a vacant midfield ahead of him, before striking a left-footed curler from the edge of the penalty area. Gianluigi Donnarumma soared across the face of goal to push it wide.

Four minutes later, Lukaku cut in from the left and uncorked a lefty laser toward the far post, but again Donnarumma was up to the task.

Barella’s opener came just after the half-hour mark after Verratti won the ball 25 yards from goal before quickly playing it to Barella inside the box. Surrounded by three red shirts, Barella somehow escaped the clutches of Belgium’s central defense to rifle an unstoppable strike off the inside of the far post.

Insigne bagged a thunderous goal from outside the penalty area in the 44th minute, giving Italy (what appeared to be) a commanding lead heading into halftime.

Alas, the opening 45 minutes hadn’t yet exhausted its allotment of drama and momentum swings. Di Lorenzo shouldered Jeremy Doku to the ground not long after the restart from Insigne’s goal, sending Lukaku to the penalty spot where he would not be denied this time.

Lukaku was on the doorstep with the chance to make it 2-2 in the 61st minute, as he got on the end of a delightful cross from De Bruyne, but Leonardo Spinazzola was perfectly positioned to spectacularly clear the first-time finish a yard from goal as he tracked Lukaku to the back post.

Doku had Belgium’s final clear-cut chance in the 84th minute, but he went inches from a dazzling equalizer after a darting dribble through the Italian midfield. He fired just over the crossbar from 20 yards out with Donnarumma likely unable to make the save himself.

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