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Italy fall to familiar foe Spain at U21 Euros but there is hope for the future

England fans weren't the only ones to feel like they've been here before as they watched their team bow out of the Under-21 European Championship on penalties to Germany. Italy's U21s also saw an all too familiar and unwelcome story unfold before their eyes when they lost 3-1 to Spain later on Tuesday evening.

Ever since the Euro 2008 quarterfinal in Vienna, Italy have had to get used to losing to Spain over the past decade. Last summer's 2-0 win in the round-of-16 at Euro 2016 was the exception to the rule, and explained why a triumphant Antonio Conte mounted the dug-out to punch the air in delight.

But, generally speaking, Italy's tournaments tend to end at the hands of the Spanish, and not just in international football.

"Sooner or later they arrive and Italian football goes home empty handed, it was the same in Krakow as in Cardiff," wrote La Repubblica. And Kiev, Jerusalem and Berlin.

Tuesday's semifinal bore a faint resemblance to the Champions League final earlier this month as Spain's champions Real Madrid took Italy's Juventus apart 4-1.

Spain dominated possession, as you would expect; but Italy limited their opponents to a single shot on target in the opening period while mustering four of their own, the best of which fell to Roma-bound Lorenzo Pellegrini who forced a big save from Kepa at his near post. But just as Juventus found against Real Madrid, "in the second half, they [Spain] gained the upper hand" in the words of Italy U21 coach Luigi Di Biagio.

While Juventus' exhaustion three weeks ago occurred soon after the interval, making Juan Cuadrado's 83rd minute red card feel almost incidental, here it was the other way round. Roberto Gagliardini's naive 58th minute sending off shortly after Saul's opener compromised everything, precipitating an acceleration in team fatigue. It's hard enough chasing Spain with 11 men, let alone 10.

Federico Bernardeschi's equaliser was a pleasant surprise, an act of defiance, but the writing was on the wall. Spain's individual brilliance told, as did the added freshness of their starters who had been given the week off, and Saul's hat trick made it 3-1 -- sending them into a final with Germany.

Saul bagged a hat trick for Spain.

"The King is Saul: Italy kneels," hailed La Gazzetta dello Sport. The Atletico Madrid midfielder is on another level. It's no coincidence he has played two Champions League finals by the age of 22. The same goes for Marco Asensio, another hat trick hero in this competition, who looks set to complete a La Liga, Champions League, European Championship treble this season.

"We have no regrets," Di Biagio insisted. "Our goal was to re-launch Italian football and we've done that." Progress has been made even, if reaching the semis was the "minimum objective" set by FIGC President Carlo Tavecchio. The record shows Italy did better than two years ago when they were eliminated at the group stage, but where the biggest strides have been made though is in first-team experience. Here the gap with Spain is still very significant but it has closed.

Losing finalists four years ago when an Italy side boasting Marco Verratti, Alessandro Florenzi and Ciro Immobile lost to Thiago and Alvaro Morata's Spain in Israel, the exposure of Devis Mangia's squad to top flight game-time was negligible. It amounted to just 106 appearances (or 5937 minutes), a pitiful amount.

More pathways must have opened up in the meantime because the squad Di Biagio assembled for this tournament in Poland had 303 combined appearances (or 23,240 minutes) under their belts.

On the one hand, these are the fruits of the reforms introduced by Arrigo Sacchi during his spell as FIGC technical director and the new squad regulations, which were brought into line with UEFA's two years ago, enforcing the inclusion of locally trained and homegrown players. On the other, it's because this generation is Italy's most promising in a long time.

"It's the best in 20 years," Si Biagio said on the eve of the tournament. Which is why there is a hint of disappointment at their exit.

Il Corriere dello Sport weren't the only paper to dub them "Little Italy." There was talk of a "harsh lesson" for players who had already been called "spoilt" brats in the aftermath of the defeat to the Czechs last week, a criticism that appalled Di Biagio, whose tactics and rotation strategy also came under fire.

Andrea Petagna
Andrea Petagna shows his disappointment after Italy went out.

The whole Donnarumma fiasco; Bernardeschi's lower profile stand-off with Fiorentina, the club that raised him, amid interest from fierce rivals Juventus; Andrea Conti's threat of a no-show for preseason training if Atalanta refuse to agree to his move to Milan, all contributed to the formation of this opinion.

Distractions like these hardly helped Italy's cause, even if the only player who looked genuinely unsettled by it all was Donnarumma, who had fake money thrown at him in Italy's opening game against Denmark and spent the rest day between the Germany and Spain games posting, justifying and then deleting social media posts. The 18-year-old will look back on the tournament with a bitter taste in his mouth -- of the 10 shots he faced, he let in six.

For the team, though, a number of positives can still be drawn from the experience.

Italy finished group winners, went out to the deserving favourites and beat the other finalists, Germany, who had won 12 straight going into their match with the Azzurri in Krakow. Down to 10 men and without the suspended Conti and Domenico Berardi,which left Biagio's hands tied in relation to the changes he could make from the bench, La Gazzetta was probably right to conclude "it was impossible to do more against the Dream Team."

There were also some very encouraging individual performances. Juventus' future centre-back pairing Mattia Caldara and Daniele Rugani look worthy of succeeding the BBC. Pellegrini, arguably Italy's Player of the Tournament, leaves Poland with his reputation enhanced. Federico Chiesa ended up making it impossible for Di Biagio not to select him, while his Fiorentina teammate Bernardeschi delivered in the big games against Germany and Spain.

Considering the U20s finished third at the World Cup in South Korea earlier in the summer, the future looks bright for Italy ahead of the next U21 Euros in 2019 which will be staged in Italy. For now attention turns to the World Cup next summer. Six members of the U21 squad are already members of the senior set-up and they must be hopeful of taking their place on the plane to Russia.

There's just one problem. One team stands in the way of them qualifying automatically for the finals and the game between them in September is must-win for Italy. Due to be held at the Bernabeu, you guessed it, it's against Spain.

James covers the Italian Serie A and European football for ESPN FC Follow him on Twitter @JamesHorncastle.

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