Italy vs Austria | Saturday 26th June 2020, 20:00 | BBC
Take a straw poll of any large group of socially distanced people to discover who they thought the most impressive team of the group stages were and there is a very strong chance a high percentage will have Italy at the top of their list.
From the very first game of Euro 2020, their opening night curtain raiser against a shellshocked Turkey outfit who never recovered from that vibrant, high-octane 3-0 mauling, the Azzurri have set the bar high… very high.
Roberto Mancini’s men became the first team in history to win all three group matches without conceding a single goal at the European Championships and in doing so saw them equal their longest ever unbeaten run of 30 consecutive games (W25, D5, L0), a record dating back to the 1930s.
Italy completed that sequence with a 1-0 win over Wales which was an incredible 11th successive “win-to-nil”, another clean sheet here will see them match another national team record of 12 shut outs in a row set back in 1974.
This will of course be the Italians first game away from Rome this tournament, with the Austrians awaiting in this round of 16 showdown at Wembley – I can’t see that being enough to halt this fearsome Mancini driven juggernaut of a team.
Giorgio Chiellini may be missing, as he was for their final group game with a hamstring problem, but when you have the luxury of choosing between Francesco Acerbi or Alessandro Bastoni as a replacement partner for Leonardo Bonucci it demonstrates the strength in depth we are talking about here and not just an imposing first eleven.
Roberto Mancini may also choose not to risk PSG’s Marco Verratti, who played the full 90 against the Welsh in his own return from injury, with the outstanding form in the tournament so far shown by both Manuel Locatelli and Nicolo Barella – whichever combination he opts for it is the selection dilemma all elite managers dream of.
As for Austria, it will be interesting to see which version of them turns up, with their fans unimpressed with the defensive nature of Franco Foda’s approach to the game but despite a win with an attack minded set up and back four – it would not surprise me to see an attempt at safety first here with even a return to a back three a possibility.
Das Team were expected to beat North Macedonia, as they did in their opening group game, but what followed in the next outing was atrocious – a meek surrender to the Netherlands in which they produced a xG of 0.72 whilst throwing up xGA of 3.53 in one of the most convincing one sided 2-0 score lines you could witness – anything close to that level of performance in London and they may as well leave their suitcases packed ready for the next flight to Vienna.
As much as the final group game and second win, was a far improved performance you do have to wonder how much Ukraine were doing their utmost to avoid this tie and instead taking their chances on being one of the best third placed teams to have a match up with Sweden.
I can’t see past another win for the Italians and as much as the widely available odds of 11/10 for a “win-to-nil” are appealing I love the look of a slightly safer option with Bet 365 and that is Italy –1 on the Asian Handicap – a bet which would have landed in all bar one of those last 11 games – with a refund in that last victory over Wales when already qualified – odds of 5/6 just look too big.
Of the many eye-catching performers wearing light blue in those group stage games it is Leonardo Spinazzola that I love to watch the most – playing with incredible energy, intensity and threat – he really set the tone in that opener against Turkey.
The Roma wing-back didn’t manage to score or assist, but he was a constant threat as Italy exploited the wide areas, having took two shots, both on target, sending in four crosses with three successful take-ons.
Another shot against the Swiss along with creating a great opportunity from one of his two crosses earned the 28-year-old a well-deserved rest for the final group game which means he should be raring to go again once reinstalled to his starting berth at Wembley.
Odds of 9/2 (Paddy Power) for an assist are a little shorter than I would be prepared to take, but the same company offer attractive odds of 2/1 for the player to have at least one shot on target against the Austrians who if they do decide to revert to type will sit deep and invite their opponents on to them – an invitation Spinazzola will only be too glad to accept – he is 13/1 to repeat the trick of match day one and fire two shots on target.
We have the teams; we have the venue all we need now is the referee and he is a familiar name to fans of the EPL – Anthony Taylor – with that appointment my eye was immediately drawn to the penalty market.
Taylor’s stats for the season are remarkable – giving 20 spot kicks from his total 39 appointments at one every 1.95 games or one every 175 minutes.
The 42-year-old from Manchester awarded 14 in 27 EPL games but seems to lift his pointing to the spot for the higher profile games – giving two penalties in both the opening and closing games of the domestic season, two more in a big clash at Old Trafford for the visit of Spurs, another in the Manchester derby as well as at least one in three of his four UCL appointments including two in the round of 16 when PSG hosted Barcelona.
Two or more penalties to be taken is 12/1 with Sky Bet while for the ultra-ambitious William Hill offer 40/1 that both sides take at least one, however for my selection I am settling for at least one penalty to be taken at a best price of 9/4 with William Hill.
Italians. Mancunians. Do your thing!
Italy vs Austria – Italy –1 Asian Handicap (5/6 Bet 365)
Italy vs Austria – A penalty to be taken (9/4 William Hill)
Italy vs Austria – Leonardo Spinazzola to have 1 or more shots on target (2/1 Paddy Power)
Italy vs Austria – Leonardo Spinazzola to have 2 or more shots on target (13/1 Paddy Power)