The power and the glory
When France striker Jean-Kévin Augustin started the ball rolling at the Rhein-Neckar-Arena in Sinsheim, few members of the massive crowd could have predicted that, in the ensuing 90 minutes, they would see Italy kick-off five times. Certainly not Paolo Vanoli, the former left-back whose tactical shrewdness had ushered Italy into the final. He remained loyal to the classic 1-4-4-2 structure, hoping to dominate by holding a very high back line and compressing play into a small area. It became immediately apparent that French technique was sufficiently accomplished to twist, turn and stab passes away from intense pressure. Dominating possession allowed France to open up spaces; Italy focused on shutting them down. As predicted, Les Bleus – in blue – would pit their attacking strengths against the defensive acumen of the Azzurri – in white.
Ludovic Batelli had stressed to his team the importance of defending well against Italy’s counterattacks by executing rapid, rational attack-to-defence transitions. But he could hardly have expected his team to pierce the opponents’ armour-plating within six minutes. In the left-hand channel of midfield, Amine Harit, withstanding a strong physical challenge, managed to stab the ball forward. The Azeri referee opted to apply the advantage principle – and Augustin proceeded to convert advantage into a game-changing moment. Even the impressive Italy centre-backs failed to cope with his power and explosive acceleration as he burst between them, skipped to his left to evade onrushing keeper Alex Meret and plant the ball left-footed into the net. France had found a punch which sent their opponent to the canvas in the opening round.
Vanoli, in all black à la Diego Simeone and rivalling the Atlético coach for touchline passion, gestured his players into positional order as they struggled to recover from the early blow. The blue-track-suited Batelli, comforted by his team’s fidelity to the game plan, chewed gum impassively with arms folded across his chest. He had underlined the importance of working the wide areas in response to Italy’s compact, narrow defending and watched approvingly as his left-footed right-winger, Ludovic Blas, made repeated infield runs that drew Italy left-back Federico Dimarco towards his centre-backs. Play was then channelled back to the right, where full-back Clément Michelin was making upfield runs that outstripped wide midfielder Alberto Picchi and forced Dimarco to scurry back out towards the touchline.
It was this manoeuvre which allowed France to deliver another strength-sapping blow. Michelin's cross from the vicinity of the right-hand corner-flag was met by the head of Blas, who had continued his infield route as far as the near post. Italy, who had conceded three goals in 360 minutes en route to Sinsheim, had conceded two within the first 20 minutes of the final.
Vanoli's disciples, to their credit, refused to raise a white flag, aware that a goal could reverse the psychological momentum. But, despite their tactical discipline and unflagging hard work, they struggled to cope with their opponent’s potent cocktail of power, technique and positional mobility. Kylian Mbappé broke clear on the left only for his cross to narrowly evade Blas – in the middle again. Blas himself provoked an ovation from the crowd with an exhilarating display of solo skills on the right. Even when France goalkeeper Paul Bernardoni, encouraged by Italy’s high line and influenced by their aim to apply high pressure, played the ball long, his team-mates' power and athleticism allowed them to dominate the second ball. France held the game in a firm grip.
At half-time, Vanoli tried to loosen it by sending on attacker Patrick Cutrone for Picchi to momentarily play 1-4-2-3-1 but, when he injected midfielder Simone Edera for shadow striker Simone Minelli ten minutes later, reverted to the more familiar 1-4-4-2 – but with rapid transitions to 1-4-2-4 attacking that demanded huge efforts from the wide midfielders and the supporting full-backs.
Despite their application, Italy’s chances to beat Bernardoni could be counted on the fingers of one hand: a header and a volley from a couple of corners; a cross-shot (also by target striker Andrea Favilli) which forced the keeper to make a save…But, for every on-target attempt, their opponents had five. The knockout blow, however, did not arrive until the 82nd minute and Meret could feel aggrieved to have been wrong-footed by a deflection that took the long-range shot by Lucas Tousart into the net. And, when the crowd was waiting for the final whistle to end Italian misery, centre-back Issa Diop, surging into the box, headed a cross from the left into the net via the crossbar. It sealed the highest winning margin in a U19 final. It was a harsh sentence for the Italy players who trooped tearfully into the main stand to collect their silver medals. Their efforts had been irreproachable. But they had been comprehensively beaten by opponents whose technique, agility, movement and power had led them to glory.