England will face their old foes Germany in the semi-finals of the European Under-21 Championship after a Federico Bernardeschi goal also sent Italy through to the last four.
On a night of head-scratching calculations with only the group winners and best runners-up guaranteed to progress, a mistake from the usually reliable Hertha Berlin defender Niklas Stark settled the match and ensured both Czech Republic and Slovakia are heading home having started the night in contention.
Whether Uefa chooses to stick with this labyrinthian format for the next edition in two years’ time remains to be seen, although England will be encouraged that they can overcome opponents who failed to live up to their previous performances in this competition against an impressive Italian team.
Aidy Boothroyd’s side will now be quietly confident of adding to their success at the Under-20 World Cup when they reconvene on Tuesday night, having enjoyed two extra days to prepare.
Germany came into the game having scored five goals without reply in victories over both the Czechs and Denmark. Despite some of their best young talent including Bayern Munich’s Joshua Kimmich and Julian Brandt of Bayer Leverkusen not being here due to the senior side’s participation in the Confederations Cup in Russia, the coach Stefan Kuntz – who scored the equaliser against England in the Euro 96 semi-final – was still able to call on the new Borussia Dortmund midfielder Mahmoud Dahoud and former Arsenal winger Serge Gnabry, who will move to Bayern next season after an impressive season for Werder Bremen.
In contrast, Italy fielded five full internationals in their starting lineup, with Milan’s teenage sensation Gianluigi Donnarumma in goal. Their surprise defeat to the Czech Republic in their second match meant Luigi Di Biagio’s team were more in need of the result.
Yet it was Germany who made the more positive start as Marc-Oliver Kempf’s header was ruled out in the sixth minute after a pinpoint free-kick from captain Max Arnold. Replays suggested that the Freiburg player was not offside, with Stark instead deemed to have been interfering with play.
Gradually, though, Italy grew into the game as Marco Benassi and then Bernardeschi went close with a curling free kick. A few minutes later, the Fiorentina forward was on hand to pounce after Dahoud lost possession following a poor pass from Stark to give Italy the lead with a simple finish. An angry confrontation ended with Domenico Berardi lucky to only be shown a yellow card for grabbing an opponent by the neck.
That rules the Sassuolo striker out of the semi-final, where Italy will now meet the favourites Spain. Germany knew that another goal would allow Slovakia to leapfrog them as best runners-up in this complicated qualification scenario, with Denmark surprisingly ahead in the group’s other match at half-time.
An equaliser for the Czechs early in the second half made the calculations even more confusing but Italy seemed intent on taking care of their own fate as a surging run and shot from the edge of the box by Berardi was pushed wide by Julian Pollersbeck. A second goal for Denmark’s Cardiff striker Kenneth Zohore at least took the Czechs out equation, with Group A runners-up Slovakia emerging as the most likely beneficiaries of a goal from either side.
In the end, both sides appeared to settle for their fates to hand England the chance to gain revenge for their 4-0 defeat in the 2009 final under Stuart Pearce.