ROME – Italy’s reserves really do play as well as its starters. Or just about.
Roberto Mancini has been saying for weeks that all 26 members of his squad are starters. And after beating Wales 1-0 on Sunday despite making eight changes to his starting lineup at the European Championship, it's hard to argue with him.
“It’s important that the identity of the team remains the same, as changing three or four players shouldn’t make any difference. They all know what to do and the end product doesn’t change,” Mancini said.
“They all proved today that everyone here is a first-choice player,” the coach added. “Winning wasn’t even necessary, which made it difficult in terms of mentality, but we fought for the win anyway and that shows so much.”
The victory extended Italy’s unbeaten streak to 30 matches — matching a team record.
Matteo Pessina gave Italy the lead late in the first half by redirecting a free kick from Marco Verratti on a textbook play.
Wales defender Ethan Ampadu was sent off with a questionable straight red card for stepping on Federico Bernardeschi 10 minutes into the second half.
Italy, which won its opening two matches 3-0, finished Group A with a perfect nine points. Wales came second with four points and qualified for the last 16 at only its second European Championship. The Welsh reached the semifinals at Euro 2016.
“Our focus today was as long as we qualify we’re happy,” Wales defender Neco Williams said. “In the changing room it feels like we won the game.”
Switzerland ended up third in the group, also with four points, after beating Turkey 3-1 in Baku, Azerbaijan.
Chasing only its second European title, Italy will play the second-place team from Group C at Wembley Stadium in London next Saturday. Wales will play the second-place team from Group B in Amsterdam.
The victory also marked Italy’s 11th straight win and clean sheet.
The Azzurri first won 30 straight under coaching great Vittorio Pozzo from 1935-39 with a team that won its second consecutive World Cup.
It’s been a remarkable turnaround for this Italy squad, which failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.
“Pozzo won many important trophies, too, so we’re still far behind that level,” Mancini said. “Anyone who goes through to the round of 16 can win the Euros, that’s for sure."
On a warm and humid evening at the Stadio Olimpico, Italy controlled from the start and Andrea Belotti and Federico Chiesa both came close to scoring before Pessina put the Azzurri ahead.
Verratti earned a foul that set up a free kick on the right flank and then whipped in a low cross that Pessina flicked into the far corner with his back to the goal.
Pessina, who plays his club ball for high-scoring Atalanta, was a late call up to Italy’s squad following an injury to Stefano Sensi. He earned the spot by scoring his first two goals for the national team in a Euro 2020 warmup match against San Marino.
Minutes after his goal, Pessina had another chance but poked the ball just wide.
Wales’ best chance of the half came with a header from Chris Gunter that narrowly missed the top corner.
Italy continued to pour forward after the break and Bernardeschi banged a free kick off the post.
Italy produced 23 scoring attempts to Wales’ three, held 64% of the possession and completed 553 passes to Wales’ 209.
“We couldn’t have done better, other than maybe score more goals," Mancini said. "It was not easy. It was extremely hot and a very physical game, so the guys did really well.”
By the final whistle, Italy had no starters from its opening two matches left on the field, with even goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma replaced by Salvatore Sirigu in the closing minutes.
More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/hub/Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports
Andrew Dampf is at https://twitter.com/AndrewDampf