Italy survived a huge scare as they scrambled past outsiders Austria into the quarter-finals of Euro 2020 with substitutes Federico Chiesa and Matteo Pessina scoring extra-time goals to earn them a 2-1 win at Wembley on Saturday.
The Azzurri had looked like the form team during an impressive group phase but Roberto Mancini’s side misfired badly as they left their Roman fortress for the first time in the tournament and looked in danger of a shock exit.
Austria, playing in the knockout phase at the European Championship for the first time, knocked the Italians out of their stride in the second half and had a goal by Marco Arnautovic chalked off after a VAR intervention.
Mancini sent on four attacking substitutes late in the second half and Italy’s squad depth proved decisive in the end as Juventus winger Chiesa and Atalanta midfielder Pessina spared their blushes with superb finishes.
Chiesa drove a shot past Daniel Bachmann in the 95th minute and Pessina, who also scored against Wales, looked to have sealed victory 10 minutes later with another clinical strike.
But a courageous Austria got a late lifeline when substitute Sasa Kalajdzic halved the deficit with six minutes left and Italy’s nerves were frazzled by the time referee Anthony Taylor blew the final whistle.
Italy’s 31st match without defeat — a new national record — sent them into a quarter-final clash against either Belgium or Portugal when they will need to play much better.
The Azzurri had swaggered their way through their group games in Rome, scoring seven unanswered goals, and Mancini’s side began in slick fashion on a perfect night for football.
With powerhouse wing back Leonardo Spinazzola marauding down the left flank at every opportunity, Austria manager Franco Foda’s pre-match assertion that his side had a 10% chance of stopping the Azzurri machine looked about right.
Spinazzola lashed one shot wide before cutting a dangerous ball back for Nicolo Barella whose sweet strike was saved by the outstretched foot of Bachmann.
Ciro Immobile, back after being rested along with the rest of Mancini’s first-choice attack for the final group game against Wales, then sent a dipping right-foot effort thudding against the post from 25 metres.
But it was not all one-way traffic as Austria exploited space in behind Italy’s defence and on one such occasion Marko Arnautovic blazed a shot over the crossbar.
Foda would have been the more satisfied manager at halftime and his side grew in confidence after the break as Italy’s strangely oozed away.
Austria skipper David Alaba curled a free kick just over the bar and it all began to get a little fraught for Italy when Xaver Schlager and Arnautovic both went close.
Arnautovic then thought he had broken the deadlock with a close-range header from a tight angle in the 65th minute but a VAR check ruled he had been fractionally offside.
Mancini looked stone-faced in the technical area and acted immediately, hauling off Marco Verratti and Barella, replacing them with Manuel Locatelli and Matteo Pessina. He then threw on Chiesa and Andrea Belotti as extra time loomed.
The changes eventually paid off as Italy’s squad depth proved sufficient to get the job done, but only just.