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semi-finals A clear favourite has emerged to win Euro 2020... and it's not England

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Italy's manager Roberto Mancini waves after a Euro 2020 soccer championship quarterfinal match between Belgium and Italy.  (Andreas Gebert/Pool Photo via AP)

Italy's manager Roberto Mancini waves after a Euro 2020 soccer championship quarterfinal match between Belgium and Italy. (Andreas Gebert/Pool Photo via AP)

Italy's manager Roberto Mancini waves after a Euro 2020 soccer championship quarterfinal match between Belgium and Italy. (Andreas Gebert/Pool Photo via AP)

There is now a clear favourite to win Euro 2020 and it is Roberto Mancini’s Italy.

Judging by the mood of euphoria in England over the last week, you could have been forgiven for thinking they had won the tournament when they beat Germany last Tuesday and their euphoria overflowed after their 4-0 win against Ukraine on Saturday night, yet I fancy the Italians to win this competition now.

There was so much to admire about their win against Belgium on Friday night and, inevitably, a lot that annoyed the hell out of me as I watched the Azzurri get over the finishing line using age-old tactics that are hard to admire.

I used to hate playing against Italian teams and players in my days on the international stage because they use every trick in the book to win a match.

It’s in their DNA to roll around in agony when they have not been touched to try and con a referee into booking their opponent.

These antics have been passed down through the ages by their grandparents and great grandparents. It is an acceptable part of Italian gamesmanship in their country.

But that doesn’t mean we have to like it, and I know from personal experience how nasty and cynical they can be.

Mancini’s side came up with a couple of fine goals to win the game and deserved to see off a Belgium side that has failed to make the most of the talent at their disposal under the management of Roberto Martinez.

Embarrassing

But the other side of Italian football was also showcased, with Ciro Immobile’s remarkable recovery from what seemed like life-threatening injuries one of the most embarrassing things I’ve seen on a football pitch in years.

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Nicolo Barella (left) celebrates his goal with Marco Verratti (centre) and Federico Chiesa (right)

Nicolo Barella (left) celebrates his goal with Marco Verratti (centre) and Federico Chiesa (right)

Nicolo Barella (left) celebrates his goal with Marco Verratti (centre) and Federico Chiesa (right)

He was writhing in agony on the floor trying to get a penalty and when Nicolo Barella scored a goal and his team-mates were all celebrating, he sprang to his feet and made a miraculous recovery.

It was embarrassing and hilarious all at once. Then, in the final 10 minutes of the game, Italy did what they do best to make sure Belgium couldn’t get back into it.

Their players getting cramp, faking injuries, committing niggly fouls and doing anything they could to run down the clock and get to the end of the game.

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They will fall down under a stiff breeze to try and get free-kicks and, then, off the ball, they will be up to all tricks trying to throw you off your game, and we saw them doing what they do best on Friday night.

Belgium couldn’t get hold of the ball for long enough to put it into a dangerous area. While you might say what Italy does in those situations pushes the laws of the game to the limit, they are masters of the ‘art’.

It’s one of the reasons why they will be so tough to beat in the next week, and why I expect to see them lifting the Euro 2020 trophy at Wembley next Sunday.

They face Spain in the semi-final on Tuesday and it has the potential to be a cracking game between two sides that have contrasting styles, but I fancy Italy to find a way to win.

Spain look vulnerable defensively, and while they have a couple of players who can serve up magical moments, I can see Italy stifling their best qualities and finding a way to impose their own game in front of what should be a bumper crowd at Wembley.

When you consider Italy missed the 2018 World Cup finals, former Manchester City manager Mancini deserves credit for getting them back on track and giving them an identity that suits the players they have.

One of the fascinating aspects of Euro 2020 has been the contrast in styles between the different nations, as it has highlighted how football has evolved over the last decade.

Fantastic

It has also been fantastic to see fans back in stadiums, as we have been reminded that the soulless games we got used to watching in empty Premier League grounds last season was football without its X factor.

Fans have always been a vital part of football, so we have to hope we have seen the last of echoing, empty stadiums and the real game can resume from this point forward.

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Mikel Oyarzabal scores the winning penalty for Spain past Yann Sommer of Switzerland in St Petersburg on Friday. Photo: Anton Vaganov/Getty Images

Mikel Oyarzabal scores the winning penalty for Spain past Yann Sommer of Switzerland in St Petersburg on Friday. Photo: Anton Vaganov/Getty Images

Mikel Oyarzabal scores the winning penalty for Spain past Yann Sommer of Switzerland in St Petersburg on Friday. Photo: Anton Vaganov/Getty Images

I wasn’t overly excited about the prospect of Euro 2020 when it started last month, but it has been impossible not to be drawn in by a tournament that has so many storylines, great goals and fascinating matches.

The feast of action we were served up last Monday made for one of the best days of football I can remember in recent years, with Spain’s 5-3 win against Croatia and Switzerland’s penalty shoot-out victory over France wonderful spectacles.

It confirmed that international football still needs to be a part of this great game of ours, but I feel strongly that we need to look at certain aspects of how the matches are scheduled outside of tournaments.

These big summer competitions are enthralling, with entire populations leaving their club loyalties to one side and getting behind a united cause, which is great to see.

The scenes of fans dancing in the streets and showing so much emotion when their national teams win a big match has been a joy to behold.

Yet when the Premier League season gets underway next month and we have qualifiers breaking up the season, as well as players going off to represent their country in the Olympics or the African Cup of Nations, the old complaints will be revived.

Drama

There has to be a way to minimising disruption to the domestic league seasons and playing more international qualifiers in the summer, with friendlies all over the world no longer of any interest to anyone.

What we want to see is the drama Euro 2020 has thrown up, hopefully with Ireland being part of the mix when this tournament rolls around again in three years’ time.

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