The preface to a tale of the unexpected was written before the ball had started rolling on a torrid evening in Seinäjoki, where moody clouds added colours and shadows to the blue skies over the pine forests surrounding the stadium. After handing in his team sheet, Hélio Sousa was obliged to rub out Miguel Luís, ultimately surrendering to a niggling injury the midfielder had been carrying through the tournament. In came Nuno Nunes, who had previously played eight minutes. The No13 slotted into a balancing role, prompting the influential Florentino to venture further forward in his linking operations.
Paolo Nicolato’s surprises were three changes among his five middle-to-front players, allied with a return to the 1-4-4-2 he had adopted earlier in the tournament, with a midfield diamond. Gianluca Scamacca returned from suspension to lead the attack alongside Andrea Pinamonti, while Filippo Melegoni operated at the apex of the diamond in place of Nicolò Zaniolo, now diverted to the left.
When the players took the field, the blue shirts of Italy bore no names; the red shirts of Portugal had names emblazoned in gold. Was it to be a contest of collective virtues against individual brilliance? Tactical order and discipline against fluent creativity?
Honours were even during the opening exchanges when Italy built more patiently than in previous games and pressed aggressively enough to generate promising transitions – defused by well-balanced Portugal defending. Italy’s early attacks were pegged to overloads on the flanks, with the two front players working individually in dropping wide rather than operating as a tandem. Portugal, with the dangerous João Filipe ‘Jota’ appearing on either flank or through the middle, attacked in numbers – a ploy which allowed them to press high and invite Italy to play long. It wasn’t long before Scamacca was directing accusing looks as another clearance went astray.
The two coaches, pensive in their technical areas, made the most of a welcome cooling break for some tactical tinkering – Nicolato focusing on front-man Pinamonti; Sousa on right-back Thierry Correia. Each team then had headed opportunities: Pinamonti when the Portugal back line lost focus for a split second; Correia from a corner on the left. But it wasn’t until the fourth official had already signalled added-time that the breakthrough arrived. Portugal skipper José Gomes, leading the attack with touches and movements of great subtlety, crossed from the left and the shot by Jota after the ball had been headed down by Francisco Trincão, spun into the net off Alessandro Plizzari’s hands.
Nicolato’s response was to withdraw Pinamonti during the interval and send on the pacy, powerful Moise Kean to partner Scamacca in attack. Maybe encouraged by the group of local ‘cheerleaders’ behind the goal they were attacking, who had swapped their red-and-green Portugal strip and flag for the blue of Italy during half-time, Italy pushed their way towards the goal defended by João Virginia. When, just before the hour-mark, Christian Capone replaced Melegoni, their attacking became more varied, better connected and more threatening – especially along the right flank where Raoul Bellanova worked tirelessly and delivered good-quality crosses. Portugal, loyal to their philosophy of attacking and defending in 1-4-3-3 formation, found themselves resorting to 1-4-1-4-1 defensive work with the wingers tucking-in to stave off Italy’s incursions in the wide areas.
During the cooling break, Nicolato gave striker Kean an encouraging slap on the backside; Sousa lectured centre-back Romain Correia and linking midfielder Florentino. But, within seconds, ‘Jota’ chested down a long pass and it was Trincão to latch on to the rebound off Plizzari to make it 0-2.
It was at this point when the final ceased to be a tactical contest and became an emotional roller-coaster. While Portugal were celebrating the two-goal cushion that, in one of football’s hallowed but less reliable traditions, offers ‘guarantees’, Italy hit back. After a seemingly innocuous throw-in on the right, Kean accelerated into the box; received a creative backheel by Capone and shot home. With Portugal shell-shocked, Italy embarked on a six-pass construction, culminating in a low cross by Zaniolo sidefooted powerfully into the net by Kean. In a couple of blinks, Italy had fought back to 2-2. When the Spanish referee signalled the end of normal time, the Italy players headed for the touchline on an emotional high – high fives among them in celebration of the comeback.
They threw themselves into extra-time searching for the knockout blow – dropping their defensive guard in the process. Both coaches exercised their option to make a fourth substitution. And Sousa’s decision to send on target striker Pedro Correia proved decisive. He was the supplier when ‘Jota’ delivered a powerful long-range shot which Plizzari could only divert into the net. This time, it was the Portugal players, subs and bench who threw themselves into high fives and hugs which prompted cautions from the referee just before he ended the first 15 of the extra 30 minutes.
But, as the daylight faded in Seinäjoki, joys were short-lived. The game had barely restarted when Italy built from the back: opening to the left; working into the centre; back towards the left; and then switching to the right, where Bellanova delivered an impeccable cross for Scamacca to make it 3-3 from point-blank range. The high fives and hugs (and cautions) travelled back to the Italy bench, where they let their mental resilience translate into unbridled euphoria.
Again, the emotional response was loaded with treachery. While still in celebration mode, the Italians were caught by a neat forward pass by ‘Jota’ to substitute striker Pedro Correia, who held off a challenge; turned; and struck firmly into the bottom far corner. Again, the euphoria travelled rapidly from bench to bench. But, this time, there was no bitter aftertaste. Portugal defended sensibly, restricting Italy to two late attempts – one wide, one blocked. And the substitution of ‘Jota’ in the dying seconds prompted a standing ovation for the night’s star performer.
As the Portugal players embraced their opponents before jubilantly lifting the U19 trophy for the first time, the take-home message was that a match that had started as a tactical encounter and had offered the fans a memorable spectacle, served the players a valuable lesson about the importance of emotional intelligence in the top-level football which awaits them in their senior careers.