Italy 0-0 Portugal
Portugal were outplayed from the first minute, but found the will to endure a stern test from Italy and earn the result they needed to win their Nations League group tonight in Milan.
Roberto Mancini clearly understood what was at stake and his side relentlessly pressed the visitors, but Portugal were resolute and gave away relatively few clear chances.
Big performances from José Fonte and the rest of the back four were instrumental as Portugal were forced to hold on for long stretches of the game, especially in the first half. The win marks another crucial milestone in the the squad's evolution without Cristiano Ronaldo.
The Seleção arrived in Milan knowing a draw would seal pole position in Group 3 of League A with a game to spare. Fears regarding Cristiano Ronaldo's absence had been calmed somewhat by strong performances in the UEFA Nations League, and Portugal was yet again without its talisman against an Italy side still trying to sort out its own identity. But having secured victory over Poland in their most recent match, the hosts had everything to play for at the San Siro despite the criticism they had endured since failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.
Santos ran out the same starting XI that defeated Poland last month with the exception of Rafa Silva and Pepe who were replaced by Bruma and José Fonte, respectively.
Italy dominant in first half
Italy had the better of the opening exchange and threatened down Portugal's left side as the Seleção struggled to keep possession. Patrício was called into action to keep out a long range effort from Insigne in the 5th minute with the follow-up skied over the bar by Immobile. Minutes later Florenzi's shot passed just the wrong side of the right post.
Bruma finally created some danger in the 10th minute when he burst into the penalty area only to see his shot well-blocked by Chiellini. Bernardo Silva then released Cancelo down the right with his cross narrowly cut out before reaching André Silva.
But Italy's withering press repeatedly caused Portugal to give away possession, often in dangerous areas. Patrício came out well to clear a dangerous through ball into the right side of the penalty area with Chiesa bearing down in the 35th minute. Somehow Portugal made it through to halftime despite completing only 66% of their passes and having registered only 27% possession and two shots compared to Italy's nine.
The second half began as the first ended with Italy dominant all over the pitch. Portugal were rarely permitted to venture outside their own half, but they were able to limit goalscoring chances for Italy. Santos replaced Pizzi with João Mário in the 68th minute. The substitute quickly made an impact as Cancelo's cross found him with space in the penalty area, but after a neat turn he lost composure and shot well over the bar. Neves had started the move with a wonderful, raking cross to find Cancelo.
Minutes later, Portugal had another great chance to score. This time William was denied by a brilliant save from Donnarumma after he latched onto a poor clearance on the edge of the penalty area. Portugal had modestly improved as Italy's press broke down, but chances remained at a premium for both sides.
Despite injury concerns, Guerreiro was thrown on for Bruma with five minutes remaining in the match. Pellegrini's stoppage time header following a corner was easily gathered by Patricio and Portugal closed out the match with relative ease.
Santos might not have been pleased with how his side played through much of the game but he surely will not be disappointed with the result. Portugal move into the semifinals of the Nations League to be played in Portugal next June, their opponents to be determined.
The back four was superb against Italy but it must be said that Portugal's Achilles Heel might be its inability to create chances on the counterattack when trying to withstand a tight press. Bernardo Silva's off night could be partly to blame in this instance, but Mário's second half cameo is an encouraging sign with the midfielder only having recently played meaningful time for his club, Inter Milan.
Though it remains to be seen whether Cristiano Ronaldo will return to the squad in Nations League play, Portugal remain undefeated in the competition and will relish the opportunity to vie for the title in front of their own fans.
Portugal finish group play against Poland, who have already been relegated to Group B, on Tuesday night in Guimarães.
by Nathan Motz
Portugal: Rui Patrício; João Cancelo, José Fonte, Rúben Dias, Mário Rui; William Carvalho, Rúben Neves, Pizzi (Mário, 68'), Bernardo Silva, André Silva, Bruma (Guerreiro, 85')
Italy: Donnarumma, Biraghi, Chiellini, Bonucci, Florenzi, Barella, Jorginho, Veratti (Pellegrini, 81'), Insigne, Immobile (Lasagna, 74'), Chiesa