Second string Italy sink Wales to maintain perfect record
The Azzurri topped Group A with a 1-0 victory over Wales, who clinched second place and a place in the last-16 alongside their opponents.
A much-changed Italian side showed their strength in depth as they cruised to victory over Gareth Bale and company, who were reduced to 10 men for the last half hour of the match after a straight red for Ethan Ampadu.
The Atalanta midfielder Matteo Pessina scored in the 40th minute and Italy passed up a plethora of chances to add to the scoreline in an utterly dominant display. Wales were grateful for a fine performance from goalkeeper Danny Ward but did have opportunities of their own, with Bale and Chris Gunter going close.
Italy had already secured qualification with two wins and Roberto Mancini decided to give his regulars a rest by making 8 changes, with Gianluigi Donnarumma, Leonardo Bonucci and Jorginho the only survivors from their 3-0 win over Switzerland. Wales were more worried about suspension, and Robert Page switched out the yellow card carrying Ben Davies, Chris Mepham and Kieffer Moore for Neco Williams, Ampadu and Chris Gunter.
Straight from kickoff, Italy were the dominant force, dictating the play and penning the Welsh into their own half. Their tactic of sending long, crossfield balls for the attacking trio of Andrea Belotti, Federico Chiesa and Federico Bernardeschi to run onto had the Wales backline in a tizzy, with young wingback Neco Williams looking particularly vulnerable.
The returning Marco Verratti, making his first start of the tournament, was the star turn of the match, sidestepping tackles and kickstarting attacks with utmost composure. In the 39th minute, he was shunted to the ground by Joe Allen but dusted himself off to take the freekick wide on the right. His low, curling delivery was met at the near post by Pessina, whose touch took the ball across Ward’s dive and into the bottom left corner.
Italy had already missed a couple of chances before the goal, with Belotti just missing a long ball into the box and Chiesa firing wide. The only first half chance for Wales was a Gunter header just over the bar in the 27th minute.
In the second half, Italy picked up where they had left off in the first. They never allowed Wales a chance to breathe and almost extended their lead in the 53rd minute, when Bernardeschi curled a low freekick around the wall but onto the base of the post.
Wales suffered another setback five minutes later, when the referee showed Ampadu the red card for a tackle on Bernardeschi in the centre circle. The tackle was not malicious, merely mistimed, and on another day the Welsh centre-back may have got away with a yellow card.
With their numerical advantage, the Italians could have run up the score and wreaked havoc with Wales’ goal difference. Instead they lifted the collective foot off the pedal slightly and were nearly made to pay by Gareth Bale. A freekick into the Italian box was sent back across goal by Joe Rodon to the unmarked Bale. But the Wales captain ballooned his volley over the bar.
The rest of the match played out in serene fashion as Italy played keep-ball. The only interesting occurrence was the sight of reserve goalkeeper Salvatore Sirigu coming on for Donnarumma in the last minute, for no other discernible reason than a bit of game-time for the veteran.
The result meant that, although Switzerland’s 3-1 victory over Turkey brought them level on points with Wales, the Welsh side’s superior goal difference secured them second place in the group and automatic qualification to the round of 16, where they will face the runners-up of Group B.
Meanwhile, Italy kept their perfect record at the tournament intact, winning 3 games, scoring 7 goals and conceding none, and also extended their unbeaten run to 30 games, equaling their national record. They look an extremely dangerous side and will fancy their chances of winning the whole thing. They will face the runners-up of Group C in the pre-quarters.