Ukraine – Italy: Italy Into The EUROs (0-0)
Having had the upper hand in the chase for the final qualifying spot, Italy would have forced Ukraine to crack the catenaccio in the past. Their approach to this clash was not reliant on a rugged rearguard, but a third clean sheet of the calendar year arrived in a timely manner.
Tactical analysis and match report by Emmanuel Adeyemi-Abere.
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Both nations thrust their current leaders into the heat of competitive campaigns to qualify for the EUROs next year. Only one could call the work in their new post successful after the final whistle.
The Ukrainians were behind Italy and England when Serhiy Rebrov accepted the job in June. They are still in third place but have fought a formidable fight to hold onto hope of a spot in the top two. A count of 13 points equals that of Italy, rendering this clash a winner-takes-all affair. Any merriment would depend on rewriting the history of a fruitless record from their past with their opponents.
The sixth match of Luciano Spalletti’s spell in charge of Italy would be the most decisive to date. The first triumph of his reign— and the first pleasing performance— was in the reverse fixture. He will be desperate to dodge the disgrace of missing a third major international competition out of the last four, and the probability of that outcome lies in his favor. He just needed not to succumb to a second defeat.
Spalletti sent out seven of the same men from the 5-2 win over North Macedonia. The most marked of his new four selections was Alessandro Buongiorno, who earned his second senior cap. He partnered with Francesco Acerbi at the back. Matteo Darmian made way for Giovanni di Lorenzo as the right back. Davide Frattesi, scorer of both goals for Italy from the reverse fixture, was back in the middle of the park. Domenico Berardi was not in the squad. Nicolò Zaniolo took his place as the right winger.
Due to the fixture allocation, the Ukrainians were fresh. Rebrov could rest his whole roster for just one outing in this international break. Oleksandr Svatok joined Illia Zabarnyi at the heart of the defense. Taras Stepanenko replaced Serhiy Sydorchuk at the base of the midfield. Rebrov put him with Oleksandr Zinchenko and Heorhiy Sudakov. Vladyslav Vanat missed the cut for the squad, so Viktor Tsyhankov returned on the right wing. Artem Dovbyk turned out as the striker for the outfit.
Chiesa causes chaos again
Italy had dominated the Ukrainians with a clear plan in their last meeting two months ago. Manuel Locatelli had pulled the strings, varying the range in his passing and position to tie up the pendulum press of their guests in a 4-2-3-1 block. Spalletti had also pinpointed a strong side of the field, the left, from which his men constructed most of their offensive plays with the help of Giacomo Raspadori. Hence, Frattesi and Zaniolo focused on breaking through on goal from the less present right edge.
Rebrov’s men mainly adopted a defensive stance in the first half. Occasionally, Zinchenko would stay or move diagonally inside to track Frattesi while Vitaliy Mykolenko rolled wide to engage in a back four. Most of the time, the midfielder dropped wide out of possession into the chain to create a 5-4-1 block. High pressure was challenging to sustain, so they primarily sat off within their half of the field.
The favorites kept about two thirds of the ball. They rotated into a 3-2-5 structure similar to the reign of Roberto Mancini. Di Lorenzo held back to form the base of three with the two central defenders. Jorginho and Nicolò Barella acted as a pivot to connect in midfield. Federico Dimarco pushed into the final third to link with Federico Chiesa. Again, they mainly dredged up danger from left of center.
Raspadori was active in this zone. He offered other options in the final third with a readiness to drop and turn in tight spaces. The electricity and energy of Chiesa also starred, beating Yukhym Konoplya in six of six one on one duels. He and Dimarco funneled the ball down the left flank to breach the box several times. The best of all was an opening for Frattesi, near the half hour mark, Chiesa created off the drive. The midfielder tried to bury a shot under Anatoliy Trubin, but he was equal to the effort.
9th minute: offensive sequence from Italy. Chiesa had stood between the lines, breaking free from the cover of Zabarnyi, while Raspadori ran deep and pinned Svatok. Once Jorginho pivoted on the ball, Dovbyk jumped to Acerbi, opening access to Barella. Frattesi’s movement forced Sudakov to watch for the passing lane in his blindside, so since Stepanenko engaged, space behind him became free. Raspadori continued to roll around the defenders to show for the ball but play went to the right.
Momentum motions away from the Italians
Ukraine only engineered two shots— both strikes from range— and three big openings before the break. Tsygankov and Sudakov received behind the Italian midfield to dribble directly at the back four in all three cases. Nonetheless, the Italians wished to stay faithful to an intent to press high up the pitch. They pushed out from a 4-3-3 defensive shape. Raspadori moved over to Svatok while Barella ran out of the midfield to close down Zabarnyi. Frattesi and Jorginho shuttled between the interiors.
Nothing disturbed the defense for the rest of the first half, and the central defenders were dominant in aerial duels. Spalletti’s men should have earned the advantage at some point before the break, so the Ukrainians sensed hope was still there for a victory. They cranked up the intensity. The tide also turned due to a lack of collective connectivity on the ball. Gianluigi Scamacca is a more physical forward than Raspadori to hold up the ball and look for a target of headers in the penalty area. Yet, he cannot boast the same associative skills in close quarters with other blue shirts. Italy bunkered in.
56th minute: offensive sequence from Italy. Stepanenko and Dovbyk split attention on Barella while the striker strays closer to di Lorenzo. The right back plays a clipped pass into the path of Dimarco, but Zabarnyi telegraphs the play. A first time layoff does not connect to Scamacca and once Italy try to regain possession, Trubin is able to connect vertically with Dovbyk to immediately turn the field.
Down to the wire
Spalletti saw how his will to play at all times had affected his pick of substitutes against North Macedonia. Without the goal that the invention of his players merited, he was careful with the options he chose from the bench. Scamacca had already replaced Raspadori through the center of the attack, but he also swapped Chiesa for Moise Kean as a left winger. Two more robust profiles with Matteo Politano at the top of the pitch could allow the Italians to compete if the contest were more scrappy and the Ukrainians could pin them back. Indeed, as full time drew nearer, the pressure started to rise.
Some damage was self-inflicted on the part of the Italians. Gianluigi Donnarumma and di Lorenzo almost left Mudryk to strike in the 65th minute. The goalkeeper atoned for that moment with a save to snuff the most blatant chance for their opponents in this phase. Buongiorno also stood up to be counted. After the referee had booked him in the first ten minutes for tugging Dovbyk’s shirt, he did not lose discipline, putting out fires from Tsygankov. Rebrov’s restraint let loose in the final ten of the allotted time. However, neither Danylo Sikan nor Ruslan Malinovskyi could make the difference.
A final scare awaited the Italians in injury time. Mudryk, so often eager to threaten with the ball from the outside, wandered close to the penalty spot. Oleksandr Zubkov found him, but the winger fell to the floor. It seemed like a clumsy Cristante had dived in for the ball. However, the officials refused to award an opportunity to break the deadlock from twelve yards. The Italians had just about progressed.
The first part of Spalletti’s mission in charge of Italy is complete. The Azzurri have acquired the right to go to Germany in 2024 and try to fend for their crown at the EUROs. Spalletti has shown signs how his handwriting could carve a different path for his country. The dispatching of the demons of North Macedonia and a promising performance at England, one of the most stable sides on the scene, are part of a solid start from the first six showings. The tailoring process and the proper work begins.
The Ukrainians are on the other emotional end of this fraught encounter. Inferior head to head record has consigned their path to the playoffs, through which they will try to get into the tournament in March. Though that outcome is painful, their story is one of defiance. Without the home advantage, Rebrov’s men still followed a steady strategy, sitting off before the break and taking risks when it was right. It was not enough to advance via the direct route, but the squad should still fancy their chances.
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