Half an hour before kick-off, when the team sheets were read aloud for the first time, the loudest Roman roar was reserved for the Italy manager, Roberto Mancini. On the front of Gazzetta dello Sport’s pullout this week, Mancini was mocked-up in the dugout alongside Albert Einstein but a third successive victory at this European Championship, which extended their unbeaten run to a record-equalling 30 matches, required little genius. In fact, they barely broke sweat on a muggy evening on which Matteo Pessina scored the only goal.
Wales, who had Ethan Ampadu sent off 10 minutes into the second half, became their latest victims but Italy’s failure to press home their one-man advantage ensured Robert Page’s side will qualify from Group A in second place, teeing up a last-16 date in Amsterdam on Saturday. Italy’s supporters enjoyed themselves and by the end there was a carnival atmosphere as a Mexican wave made its way around this cavernous stadium. It was an outcome that suited both teams, even if Ampadu’s red card will rankle.
It is one thing knowing what to expect from Italy and another thing stopping them. They suffocated Wales towards the end of a one-sided first half, swarming upfield at will through the Juventus pair Federico Chiesa and Federico Bernadeschi – clubmates of Aaron Ramsey, whose name was heavily jeered when read aloud before kick-off – and were left exposed when Ampadu was handed a straight – and rather harsh – red card 10 minutes into the second for a late tackle on the ankle of Bernadeschi. From that moment on, it was an exhibition in keep-ball for Italy.
In midfield the returning Marco Verratti was peerless, quick to assert his control, swivelling away from challenges and kick-starting attacks. He proved the catalyst for the goal, winning a foul and then providing a delicious cross for Pessina to steer in. Joe Allen shunted Verratti to the ground 20 yards from the Wales goal but he dusted himself off to whip the resulting free-kick in from the right. Arriving at the front post was Pessina, whose deft touch, with the instep of his right foot, nestled in the far pocket of Danny Ward’s goal.
And then off he went, haring 50 yards along the touchline to spring into his team-mates, high-fiving Mancini amid the ecstasy of it all. The Atalanta midfielder was on standby for the 26-man squad until injuries to Stefano Sensi and Lorenzo Pellegrini. Verratti crafted another chance moments later as Italy sought to double their advantage but an extended Pessina toe-poked wide.
Mancini promised changes and made eight of them, with Gianluigi Donnarumma, who is poised to join Paris Saint-Germain, Leonardo Bonucci and Jorginho the only survivors from their 3-0 stroll against Switzerland. Bonucci captained Italy in the absence of the injured Giorgio Chiellini but Mancini had the luxury of being able to withdraw his primary gatekeeper at the interval. Wales, too, tweaked things with one eye on the last 16, with Ben Davies, Chris Mepham and Kieffer Moore, all of whom are another booking away from suspension, removed from the firing line. Five years ago Davies, together with Aaron Ramsey, missed the Euro 2016 semi-final defeat to Portugal after totting-up cautions earlier in the competition.
Ward twice made fine saves to deny the lively Andrea Belotti and Bernadeschi rattled a post from a free-kick after Verratti sold Wales a dummy. Ampadu’s dismissal saw all hope of a stirring comeback evaporate and the defender was consoled by his Chelsea teammate Jorginho and Wales captain Gareth Bale as he left the pitch close to tears. Page placed both hands on his head but ultimately there was no need for such glumness for Wales are through the knockout stages. Again.