Euro 2020: This is Italy but not as we once knew them - Stuart Rayner

There are two parts to most international football tournaments – the stresses and frustrations of watching your own team progress or not, and the joy of sitting back and seeing 22 of the world’s best footballers slug it out without a care in the world about who comes out on top.

Italy's Ciro Immobile celebrates after scoring against Switzerland Picture: Andreas Solaro/Pool Photo via AP
Italy's Ciro Immobile celebrates after scoring against Switzerland Picture: Andreas Solaro/Pool Photo via AP

Keep it to yourself, but sometimes they can be more enjoyable when England have gone out, or not even got there.

This evening at Wembley, therefore, should be one to be enjoyed by those lucky enough to have a ticket, and those just watching on television. The nail-biting can resume when England and Germany pitch up there three days later.

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Today, Italy are in town, but not the Italy we know.

Italy's Manuel Locatelli celebrates with his teammate Lorenzo Insigne after scoring his side's first goal against the Swiss. Picture: AP Photo/Riccardo Antimiani, Pool

The Azzurri breezed through Group A as one of just three teams (alongside Belgium and the Netherlands) with a 100 per cent record. They and England were the two sides not to concede a goal.

But right from the start of the tournament – from long before it for those paying close attention – Italy marked themselves out as being very different from their predecessors. It was a very refreshing change.

Where England have struggled to score goals (two in three games) whilst keeping the back door shut, Italy have oozed them – six in their first two matches and another when they sent their second string out to see off Wales. Despite two of his best players being redoubtable veteran centre-backs Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini (an injury doubt today), and goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma being regarded as one of the best around even at the tender age of 22, their manager, Roberto Mancini, has promoted a flowing style of football almost disrespectful of his country’s catenaccio traditions.

Italy play with a right-footed left-back, Leonardo Spinazzola, who seems to get as close to his centre-forwards as his centre-back, a holding midfielder, Jorginho, who is a better passer of the ball than tackler and unlike the sometimes too tame Three Lions, a carefree spirit to make the most of them.

Italy's Manuel Locatelli, left, celebrates scoring his second goal against the Swiss. Picture: Andreas Solaro/Pool Photo via AP

As well as being whatever the opposite of nominative determinism is, Ciro Immobile is a centre-forward with a European golden boot that somehow not everyone seems sold on, but two goals and an assist already in the tournament has quietened a few of the sceptics. Having Lorenzo Insigne and Domenico Berardi either side of him must make the Lazio striker’s life that bit easier.

The joy Italy play with is about more than their forward-thinking football. When they failed to qualify for the last World Cup, Chiellini called it “the lowest point for Italian football in the last 50 years” and their absence from major tournament football has certainly made the heart grow stronger.

Maybe in time we will be saying Gareth Southgate was right all along, and that Mancini’s naievety was exposed when Italy started facing top-tier opposition and left Rome. Maybe not.

What we do know, is that however long it is, their journey will be worth watching.

Little spoken of except by the cognescenti pre-tournament, Italy are being talked about now, generally third behind France and England with bookmakers in this country.

Such is the draw, if England do end up playing them, it will be in the final and frankly if it means they get onto the field on July 11, they should not care who they face because they are going to be pretty handy.

If Italy win today, their next quarter-final will be versus Belgium or Portugal. More games well worth watching.

Not that Austria will be showing up just to take a few selfies and make up the numbers.

Mancini’s last game at Wembley ended in his Manchester City team losing the 2013 FA Cup final to Wigan Athletic.

In Marko Arnautovic, Austria have a striker capable of the good, the bad and the ugly – one goal so far, one suspension for insulting the mother of Leeds United’s Ezgjan Alioski.

Marcel Sabitzer is a midfielder who should enjoy Italy’s fondness for going toe to toe, as should Christoph Baumgartner, whose goal set this game up.

Real Madrid-bound David Alaba is the sort of modern versatile player who, if Austria could only clone him a couple of times, would have a much better chance of adding to an already ridiculous medal collection that after 12 years at Bayern Munich has left him with more bling than Mr T.

It should be fun – and once it is out of the way, England fans can get back to the business of not enjoying football.