Spain 2 -1 Italy : Joselu hits late winner to send Spain past Italy and into Nations League final

Joselu, the man who waited 14 years for a Spain call-up and then scored twice within three minutes of coming on for his debut, has gone and done it again.

Introduced with five minutes left in the semi-final of the Nations League against Italy, his second substitute appearance for the national team at the age of 33, he had only been on the pitch for two of them when his moment came. Picaresque, he called it: lurking near the goalline, a crafty little wave of the boot edged the ball past Gianluigi Donnarumma and the seleccion into Sunday’s final against Croatia.

Born in Germany, the former Newcastle and Stoke striker – a veteran of 10 different clubs in three different countries who was relegated with Espanyol this season – has some record for Spain: three games played, three goals scored. In the 84th, 85th and 88th minutes. And now, maybe, a winners’ medal on the way, too. “It’s a question of faith,” he said. With the score at 1-1 in Rotterdam and the match heading to extra time, which was the last thing anyone wanted, he decided to hang around the keeper and wait to “see what happened”. What happened was that he became a hero.

The move built by Ansu Fati, Jordi Alba and Rodri had broken down but the ball came back to the Manchester City midfielder to strike from the edge of the area. It took one deflection, then another and dropped right in front of the Italian keeper and just a toe away from the Spanish forward. A gentle touch was enough to end it at 2-1, everyone going wild. In the stands, his wife started to cry. Spain had done it; they had deserved it too, eventually at least.

Spain had been rescued from going behind near the half-hour by the VAR, just at the point at which they appeared most vulnerable. Unable to control Davide Frattesi or the game, it was hard to imagine them responding at that point. But by the second half it had become a different game. Luis de la Fuente’s side had scored one with two minutes gone, now they had another with two minutes to go. And this time there was no response from Italy.

Joselu, sitting on the floor, is surrounded by his celebrating Spain teammates.
Joselu is mobbed by his Spain teammates after his late goal

The opener had been given to them by Donnarumma and Leonardo Bonucci, the keeper playing the defender into trouble on the edge of the area and Yeremi Pino punishing them for it, given the chance to bend a shot into the corner. On the touchline, it was all Roberto Mancini could do to shrug. Yes, Álvaro Morata had chased the keeper, Gavi had chased the defender and Pino had waited to pick up the pieces, the movements coordinated, but still this was too simple. Worse, Italy’s manager had seen this before from a goalkeeper with a reputation that sometimes doesn’t match reality.

If the way Spain had pressed to force that error was characteristic of them, what followed was not, which is why the lead did not last long. At this stage, the game was open, direct, the teams stretched and the midfield mostly a transit zone, passed quickly. Spain were exercising little of the control that is supposed to define them; instead, it was chaotic. A lot was happening, but that was a question more of quantity than quality. When the press was applied to Unai Simón for the first time he gave it away, and relatively simple balls forward were causing more problems than they should have.

From one, Italy had the equaliser. From another, they thought they had the lead. Again the space was easily found and Nicolò Zaniolo’s cross hit the outstretched arm of Robin Le Normand, making his debut. There was little doubt about the penalty and none about its execution, Ciro Immobile hitting the spot-kick hard and low to level it. Forced to scramble a little too often, the structure insecure, Spain were caught again 10 minutes later. Alba was the man beaten this time: as he hung a leg, Frattesi spun him and went through to beat Simón. The VAR check, though, ruled it out.

Another direct delivery had Immobile scampering up the right, pulling the ball back across goal and just beyond Nicolò Barella, the seleccion struggling with how high Italy were pressing. Slowly, though, Spain did start to exercise a little control, to look little more like Spain, even if their next shot came from a simple clearance that had Morata running at a retreating defence to draw a sharp save from Donnarumma.

Rodri was beginning to get hold of the ball, Mikel Merino finding a more natural place alongside him. On the right, Jesús Navas was beginning to progress. Gavi, flitting around him, found Morata for a shooting opportunity. And although the closest anyone came before the break was Rafael Tolói, whose sliced shot from the edge of the area spun just over the bar, that shift became more marked in the second half.

Just two minutes in, Merino volleyed against the bar from close range, Morata spinning and putting the rebound wide from a few yards. Rodri then put an overhead kick just too high after Donnarumma dived out and flapped. And yet if Spain were taking control, it took a superb save from Simón to keep them in it when Zaniolo’s left wing cross found Frattesi alone inside the six-yard box and a Federico Dimarco cross almost found Giovanni Di Lorenzo sliding in. At the other end Donnarumma flashed out a fast hand to flick away from Morata at the near post.

It was the Atletico’s striker last opportunity, replaced by Joselu as the clock ticked down. The 33-year-old didn’t have long; he didn’t need long, either.

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