Paris (AFP) – Italy beat Belgium 2-1 in a pulsating Euro 2020 quarter-final in Munich on Friday to set up a last-four clash with Spain, who needed penalties to get the better of 10-man Switzerland.
Lorenzo Insigne’s brilliant strike proved to be the winner for Italy, who extended their national record unbeaten run to 32 matches.
Roberto Mancini’s men will face Spain in the first semi-final on Tuesday at Wembley.
“We deserved to win. The players were extraordinary,” Italy coach Mancini told Rai.
“It is clear that we suffered in the last 10 minutes because we were tired. They were good, we could have scored a few more goals.”
Belgium and Italy were the only sides to win all 10 games in qualifying and the only teams along with the Netherlands to win every match in the group stage.
The Azzurri, whose only European title came in 1968, started brightly and thought they had struck first when Leonardo Bonucci put the ball in the net, only for VAR to rule the goal out for offside.
Nicolo Barella did give Italy the lead in the 31st minute with a fine solo goal though, jinking between two defenders and hammering a shot into the far corner past Thibaut Courtois.
The Italians were in dreamland when Insigne curled home a wonderful long-range strike into the top corner shortly before half-time.
But Belgium gave themselves hope in first-half stoppage time through a Romelu Lukaku penalty after Jeremy Doku was shoved over in the box by Giovanni Di Lorenzo.
The Belgians had their moments in the second half, with Lukaku denied by some desperate last-ditch defending.
Doku fired over after a mazy run as the world’s top-ranked side piled on the pressure, but Italy held on to reach the semis for the sixth time.
– Spain edge out valiant Swiss –
Earlier on Friday, Spain, champions in 2008 and 2012, beat Switzerland 3-1 on penalties after their quarter-final tie in Saint Petersburg finished 1-1 at the end of extra time, with Mikel Oyarzabal scoring the winning kick.
Luis Enrique’s side appeared to be coasting as Jordi Alba’s shot deflected in off Denis Zakaria for an own goal to put Spain ahead in the eighth minute.
However, the Swiss had caused a sensation by eliminating world champions France in the last 16 and they battled back to equalise midway through the second half when a disastrous defensive mix-up between Spain centre-backs Aymeric Laporte and Pau Torres allowed Xherdan Shaqiri to score.
Switzerland then held on through extra time after midfielder Remo Freuler was sent off in the 77th minute for a challenge on Gerard Moreno.
They had converted all five of their penalties in the shoot-out against France and this time they were given a head-start when Sergio Busquets hit the post with Spain’s first effort.
Rodri also failed to score for Spain but Unai Simon saved from Fabian Schaer and Manuel Akanji before Ruben Vargas blazed over.
– Virus concerns in Russia –
Oyarzabal’s kick allowed Spain to go through and help banish the memory of their defeat on penalties in the last 16 of the 2018 World Cup against the hosts in Russia.
“Unai (Simon), I’ve seen him stop a lot of penalties with Athletic Bilbao, and I see him training with us… he’s a specialist,” said Spain boss Luis Enrique.
Friday’s game went ahead in Saint Petersburg despite major concerns about a surge in coronavirus cases in the Russian city, fuelled by the Delta variant.
Earlier on Friday, Russia reported 679 coronavirus deaths over the previous 24 hours, setting a pandemic high of fatalities for the fourth day in a row. Saint Petersburg recorded 101 deaths.
An attendance of almost 25,000 watched the game in the Krestovsky Stadium, which has welcomed some of the largest crowds permitted at this pandemic-affected European Championship.
The remaining quarter-finals will be played on Saturday, when England — fresh from beating Germany — play Ukraine in Rome.
England may not have many fans in the Stadio Olimpico due to Italian coronavirus rules which mean all arrivals from the United Kingdom have to quarantine for five days.
Denmark play the Czech Republic in Baku exactly three weeks on from Christian Eriksen’s cardiac arrest in the Danes’ first match at the tournament.
Eriksen was discharged from hospital less than a week after his collapse after having a defibrillator implanted to regulate his heart rate, and without him Kasper Hjulmand’s team have rallied to reach the last eight.
“We will play with the heart of Christian Eriksen. He is the heart of the team still and with that heart and without fear, we will try,” said Hjulmand.