Italy just don’t let up, securing first place in top gear with a second team. Thanks to a 1-0 win over Wales that had the feel of a 4-0, Roberto Mancini’s side also ensured a 100% record. That is fitting for a group that have fast become the team of the tournament, because they have done everything so far at a maximum, and at maximum speed.
Another consequence of that was Wales managing a hugely valuable second place by the minimal margin, as they edged out Switzerland on goal difference, and after a fair bit of anxiety. The result means they won’t have anything like a challenge as difficult as this in the second round, as they are likely to play Finland or Russia. That will feel like a training exercise after this.
Reduced to 10 men as Ethan Ampadu resorted to a desperate – but not necessarily red-card-worthy – challenge, Wales were just another side swept away by the waves of emotion and force at the Stadio Olimpico.
It is almost a pity this was Italy’s last game in Rome, because they have been among the best occasions at the tournament. The singing of the anthem was again a cultural event in itself, and so loud that it sounded like the Stadio Olimpico was full to its 70,000 capacity. It was spine-tingling, and had the feel of a send-off to bigger battles.
A fair question is whether a move away from here to Wembley for the last 16 will affect Italy’s performance, but Mancini’s eight changes didn’t. They still had all that momentum, all that movement.
This what was so encouraging about a game that could have been a dead rubber. It instead reverberated with more life, more energy. Mancini made eight changes but Italy just picked up from where they were against Switzerland. They just kept going forward, in waves that eventually overwhelmed Wales in the way it did everyone else so far.
Even that set-piece opening goal was also a sweeping move, the ball just being whirled through by the sheer adventure of Italy’s play. Long before that breakthrough, Wales had just been battered back around their own area, almost completely unable to get out.
The ball seemed to spend so much time whizzing across their box, just missing that key touch. Italy were still going so close though. Andrea Belotti flashed just wide, Federico Chiesa had one powerful drive cleared off the line by Ampadu.
The fact that was from mere yards out showed how close Italy were going.
The goal was just a matter of time - and place. Marco Verratti, restored to the team after injury, of course picked his spot from a free-kick perfectly. Matteo Pessina was able to just guide it on, and past Danny Ward.
It perhaps illustrates a lot about this team that, as most of the stadium and the players celebrated, Mancini corralled three together and issued specific tactical instructions.
Again, they don’t let up. It did mean things were tensing up for Wales.
Switzerland were already comfortably 2-0 up against Turkey in the other game, meaning a swing of two more goals would put them in second and the Welsh in third. The prospect of falling down the group got more likely as they were reduced to 10 men. That was somewhat unfortunate, though, as Ampadu’s foul on Federico Bernardeschi maybe warranted a yellow rather than a red.
It was still indicative of just how far off Italy’s pace that Wales were. They were always a step behind, always striving to keep up.
In the one moment when they finally got forward, Aaron Ramsey had seemed to break through, only for a mere moment’s hesitation to be enough for Italy to act. Francesco Acerbi recovered from his own error to win the ball, and then beat Ramsey, by skipping over his leg to also chip the ball forward. It was defending that was at once graceful as well as gritty, and of course so sweeping.
This was what was so remarkable about Italy’s game. They almost completely snuffed Wales out, rendering them mere passengers in the game desperate to hang on.
They did hang on to second place in the end, albeit having not been allowed have any impact on the game. It could have huge impact on how their tournament pans out. The difference between second and third are immense. Wales avoid a first-place side.
It’s highly plausible, however, that they won’t play anyone as good as Italy no matter how far they get.
That’s the only way we can talk now. The Italians have been that good. This team, at this level, can beat anyone in this tournament. The only question now is whether they let up.