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UEFA U21 Championship

Waiting game: Italy's U21s left in limbo despite beating Belgium

00:00 GMT+3 23/06/2019
Nicolo Barella Italy Belgium
The Azzurrini won 3-1 in Reggio Emilia but Spain's 5-0 defeat of Poland saw La Rojita finish top, meaning the hosts are relying on results elsewhere

Now, we wait.

We wait to see if Italy, the host of the 2019 European Under-21 Championship, will fall at the first hurdle.

The Azzurrini did what they had to do in Saturday's must-win meeting with Belgium in Reggio Emilia, triumphing 3-1 with goals from Nicolo Barella, Patrick Cutrone and, almost inevitably, Federico Chiesa, but it wasn't sufficient to secure top spot in Group A.

That honour goes to Spain, who routed Poland 5-0 in Bologna to secure their place in the semi-finals by virtue of the fact that they had the better goal difference in a three-way tie for top spot with their vanquished opponents and the Azzurrini.

Italy had needed La Rojita to defeat the Poles – who had won both of their previous games – but not by more than two goals.

As it stands, the Azzurrini, with their tally of six points and a goal difference of +3, now need results to go their way elsewhere so that they can progress as the best runner-up across all three groups.

The wait will be agonising and might not end well for the hosts, given France and Romania need only draw their final game on Monday night to ensure both progress to the knockout stage with seven points apiece.

Italian football fans have bitter memories of the 'biscotto', with an unlikely 2-2 draw between Sweden and Denmark at Euro 2004 having eliminated the senior squad and allowed both Scandinavian sides to progress.

However, there was never any evidence anything untoward went on in Porto and besides, Italy, just like their Under-21 counterparts now, only have themselves to blame for even being in this position.

Luigi Di Biagio and his side have essentially consigned themselves to possibly two days in purgatory for losing to a Poland team that Spain routed.

Elimination would, thus, be hellish, particularly having overwhelmed La Rojita in their tournament opener in Bologna last weekend.

To their credit, they also played with a similar intensity against the hapless Belgians.

Crucially, they rediscovered the goalscoring touch which so frustratingly abandoned them against Poland.

It took a while, though. Several chances were squandered before Barella atoned for the worst miss of all – an unmarked diving header from a central position – when he lashed in left-footed at the second attempt just moments before the break.

Cutrone then doubled the Azzurrini's advantage with a fine, glancing header from a Lorenzo Pellegrini cross eight minutes into the second half.

Knowing that goal difference would be crucial to their hopes of securing the best runners-up place, the hosts continued to charge forward in charge of a third.

Unfortunately for them, it was Belgian who struck next, with Yari Verschaeren finding the top right corner of Alex Meret’s goal with a sumptuous curling strike from outside the area.

Italy kept coming, though, and deservedly restored their two-goal advantage when Chiesa cut inside from the left flank and whipped the ball home into the top corner with just over a minute of normal time remaining.

The goal was originally disallowed for offside but VAR intervened. The wait was excruciating.

But nothing compared to what now awaits the Azzurrini and their coach, Di Biagio, who will come under serious pressure to step down if such a talented squad fails to even make the knockout stage of a tournament staged on home soil.

In fairness to the former midfielder, his cause was hardly helped by Nicolo Zaniolo and Moise Kean turning up late for a team meeting on the day of the game.

Zaniolo wouldn't have played anyway, as he was suspended, but Di Biagio had already confirmed that Kean would start, so it was a big call for the coach to omit his star player for a game of such importance.

The Juventus sensation could have aided the Azzurrini's bid to boost their goal difference, certainly late on.

As it was, though, Kean's absence didn't make a difference in terms of determining the outcome of the group.

Captain Roland Mandragora said beforehand, "We need a victory and then, we can only hope for the best."

They got their victory in Reggio Emilia. It wasn't enough to take spot. And is unlikely to earn them a place in the last four.

Hope really is all they have left now.