Italy arrived with the promise of much flair and in the first 45 minutes largely delivered on it but it was a game decided by more earthy qualities. Austria were rightly praised for their performance but their only first-half shot was off target and even once they stepped their game up in a second period where Marko Arnautovic’s header was narrowly chalked off for offside they still only troubled Gianluigi Donnarumma once in 90 minutes.
Instead it became a tight but exciting affair, dragged beyond the 90 minutes and with the video assistant referee playing an important role. Substitutes were crucial, scoring all three goals, all of them in extra-time.
Italy were so thrilling in qualification and the group stage but unfortunately neither the most entertaining team nor the quickest starters tend to come out on top in a tournament stretched over the years from a high-quality sprint to a slog of a marathon which lengthens every time a Uefa presidential candidate needs a few votes.
It would be great to see England play with more of the adventure Italy showed at the start and they have the players to do it but manager Gareth Southgate is more cautious by nature and all he needed to say in his defence at half-time was “0-0”.
If romance is what you are after, you might be better off watching the CCTV from Matt Hancock’s office.
For all Italy’s positive mentality and high lines, nerves played a part early on, moves breaking down because either the pass to Ciro Immobile or his touch was too heavy.
An excellent turn and pass when Marco Veratti received the ball in a tight area released Immobile but Watford’s Daniel Bachmann saved, as he would with his feet from Nicolo Barella.
If Italy played like the home team, they sounded like the home team. The beauty of international football in London is most teams have ex-pats there and Italy’s sang their country’s jaunty national anthem as the players swayed to it, watched by a line of holiday reps in grey jackets, ties and a black trousers who turned out to be the coaching staff.
When Stefan Lainer in particular got the ball there were whoops of Austrian excitement, not anticipation, though before kick-off the refreshing “happy to be here” feel was everywhere. By the time the second half was midway through, “Osterreich” outdid “Italia” as the dominant chant.
By then Franco Foda, Austria’s coach with an Italian father, had decided to take the front foot. Austria had only had two first-half touches in Italy’s penalty area, their only shot, speculative from Arnautovic, coming from beyond it.
But they went at the Azzurri after the break. Marcel Sabitzer’s deflected shot spread panic, Arnautovic forced a save from the corner and soon he was nodding David Alaba’s header into the net to Italian despair.
They say VAR ruins celebrations but it does create them too. You would have got long odds on Stuart Attwell decision cheered to the rafters in a European Championship knockout tie but that was what happened when he finally made his mind up that Arnautovic was a smidgeon offside. It is a point that cannot be made too often that VAR technology is not precise enough to make decisions that fine.
When Lainer went down in the area, Austrian fans hopefully chanted “VAR”.
By full-time, Italy were clinging on but Roberto Mancini’s substitutions were good ones, replacing Veratti when his influence waned and bringing on players with the cutting edge his team had lacked.
Extra-time began with substitute Federico Chiesa drilling a shot at Bachmann – Italy’s first on target for 77 minutes – then dealing brilliantly with a Leonardo Spinazzola pass that was beautifully lofted but bounced spitefully. He hammered it in.
When fellow sub and late squad call-up Matteo Pessina blasted a second it looked like goodnight for the men from Vienna but a country that only won its first European Championship game last week refused to give in, Sasa Kalajdzic converting a diving header and Michael Gregoritsch, another sub, half-volleying wide then defending brilliantly as Chiesa broke and beat Bachmann.
If this competition becomes a battle of substitutes – there were 11 on the field at the end – that should work in England’s favour.
Italy have won 31 consecutive matches, the most in their history; until Kalajdzic’s goal, they had not conceded in 1,168 minutes. Yet this does not feel like a great team.
There is a suspicion the quality of opposition has not properly tested them.
We will not be able to say that by Friday night.
What a gutsy but far from elite Austria showed us is Mancini’s men have real character to go with their defensive resilience. It would be nice to think flair will be a more important factor than either in deciding who lifts the trophy but top international football does not always work like that.