Classic Azzurri Matches – Italy vs Netherlands 2000
In a game where Francescos Toldo and Totti stole the show in a penalty shoot-out, Italy reached their first European Championship final for 32 years with a nail-biting win over co-host nation the Netherlands at Euro 2000.
June 29, 2000. A date that many Azzurri fans are unlikely to forget.
Italy faced a daunting task in their Euro 2000 semi-final clash against the Netherlands, who were hosting the tournament and heavy favourites for the crown. This Azzurri team, coached by legendary goalkeeper Dino Zoff, displayed all the hallmarks of what the Italian national team has been known for: defensive excellence and stoic resilience. This in contrast to the Dutch, whom the media was hailing as ‘swashbuckling, cavalier and adventurous’, meant that this was truly a clash of different philosophies and ideals.
Yes, this Azzurri outfit had the vision and guile of an in-form Totti, who had perhaps – in a personal sense – his best tournament for his national team. They had the craft and creativity of Stefano Fiore, and of course the class of Alessandro Del Piero, but make no mistake, this Azzurri outfit was built on it’s functionality and defensive rigor.
Francesco Toldo was a human brick-wall, and in front of him had the distinguished trio of Paolo Maldini, Fabio Cannavaro and Alessandro Nesta ready to halt any onrushing attacks. The tenacious duo of Luigi Di Biago and Demetrio Albertino at the base of the midfield meant it was no surprise that they only shipped two goals in four matches en route to their clash with the host nation.
Zoff introduced a surprise in the starting line-up, with Del Piero getting the nod alongside former club-mate Filippo Inzaghi. The coach stuck with his trusted 3-5-2 formation, but Nesta was handled with the responsibility of marking out the Dutch danger-man Patrick Kluivert. The striker, fresh off a hat-trick in the 6-1 demolition of Yugoslavia in the quarter-final, was heralded as the nation’s talisman and it was imperative he had to be thwarted if the Azzurri stood any chance of making the tournament’s showpiece.
The Dutch meanwhile lined up as expected under Frank Rijkaard. The imperious Edwin Van der Sar started in goal, whilst Frank de Boer and Jaap Stam were chosen as the pillars at the back once again. Edgar Davids and Phillip Cocu operated as a unit in the heart of midfield, while Marc Overmars and Boudewijn Zenden were entrusted with supporting the formidable partnership of Dennis Bergkamp and Kluivert up top.
The match began as expected, with the Netherlands, buoyed by their own crowd at the Amsterdam Arena, showing the more initiative and enterprise in their play. The Azzurri had their first real scare when Bergkamp dribbled past Mark Iuliano and had a shot that flew past Toldo, but came off the frame of the goal.
Disaster struck however on 33 minutes when Gianluca Zambrotta was stupidly sent-off for a second yellow card. Having been booked for a foul on Zenden on the quarter-hour mark, the wing-back failed to learn from his mistake, and was rightfully booked again for an obstruction on the same man barely 20 minutes later. This meant a reshuffle for the Azzurri, who went to a 4-4-1, with Del Piero shifting to right-midfield and Inzaghi having to feed on scraps up-front on his lonesome.
Just when you thought the Italians couldn’t display an even more defensive mentality, they withdrew even further back. The plan was simple. Just contain, and hope to possibly steal one on the counter-attack.
That plan however was nearly thrown into disarray when referee Markus Merk blew for a penalty against Nesta in what he perceived to be a tug on Kluivert’s jersey on the stroke of half-time. Toldo however guessed the right way, and dived to his left to save Frank de Boer’s spot-kick and ensure the two sides went into the interval level. That missed penalty an omen perhaps, of what was to come.
The second half was more of the same. The Dutch continuing to pepper the goal, whilst the Azzurri defended stoically. Nesta, in particular, was having a fantastic match, getting first to every ball and completely nullifying the threat of Bergkamp and Kluivert.
The Dutch incredibly had another chance to take the lead from the spot just after the hour mark after Davids was brought down by Iuliano. Kluivert took the responsibility this time, but his spot-kick crashed into the post, and left the Azzurri with another lifeline.
Zoff threw on his wildcard in the form of Totti with seven minutes left to play in normal time, but not even he could conjure a special moment, which meant the game went into extra time.
The longer the game went on, the more the game fell into the Azzurri’s hands. The Dutch were running out of ideas and were starting to get frustrated by the resilience of the Italian rearguard. The Azzurri players were chasing and harrying every ball like their life depended on it. Players like Del Piero and Totti were hustling their Dutch counterparts like yard-dogs to preserve the draw – a far cry from their usual demeanour.
At last the Azzurri gained the result they were after, and sent the Dutch to a penalty shoot-out, and it was Toldo who would emerge the hero. The Inter keeper would save from de Boer (again) and Paul Bosvelt, whilst Stam blasted his penalty into row Z.
A Di Biagio, Gianluca Pessotto and a cheeky Totti panenka was enough, despite Maldini’s miss from six yards, to send them into the final where they would face arch-nemesis France.