MUNICH: Italians must have been the only football fans not begging for extra time near the end of their team's 2-1 win over Belgium in the Euro 2020 last eight as the high-octane clash delivered the best international football can offer.
Spain's tumultuous 5-3 win over Croatia and the Swiss ousting world champions France in the last 16 may have been more dramatic, but Tuesday evening's classic in Munich left nothing to be desired in any department.
Like two heavyweight boxers trading punches in a title fight, Italy and Belgium threw everything they had at each other throughout a contest packed with pace, energy, tactical know-how and individual skill.
Former Germany striker Juergen Klinsmann hailed Italy's spectacular display, which had Belgium - who are used to dominating their rivals with crisp one-touch passing - on the back foot for much of the contest.
"What they showed from the attacking side was impressive," the 1990 World Cup and Euro96 winner told the BBC.
"The combinations they played and the passing sequences. There was about a minute and thirty seconds where they had 25 to 30 passes and Belgium gave up and parked the bus for a minute."
Former England striker Alan Shearer added: "It was a magnificent game of football, end to end. The Italians stood firm with everything that the Belgians threw at them in the last 10 or 15 minutes. They were magnificent."
The Italians complemented their reputation as defensive kings with a masterclass performance at the other end of the pitch which saw them book a mouth-watering semi-final clash with Spain at Wembley on Tuesday.
The Azzurri have continued to thrive under manager Roberto Mancini, himself a gifted forward who seems to have instilled his philosophy into a side keen to take the game to even the most talented opposition.
Italy's relentless pressure had Belgium on the ropes after they fell 2-0 behind to a Nicolo Barella strike and a Lorenzo Insigne curler before Romelu Lukaku pulled one back with a penalty on the stroke of halftime.
But instead of parking the bus, as many previous generations of Italians would have done, Mancini's revamped side kept attacking in search of a third goal to kill the game off.
Belgium's top scorer Lukaku was stifled by Italy's central defensive duo of 36-year old Giorgio Chiellini and 34-year-old Leonardo Bonucci, whose experience was everywhere to be seen as they also showed the energy levels of youngsters.
With Lukaku misfiring in the second half as he spurned a gilt-edged chance to equalise, it was 19-year-old forward Jeremy Doku who carried Belgium's effort with electrifying pace and close control.
Having tormented his markers on the left flank all evening, Doku won Belgium's penalty and nearly scored the goal of the tournament after a dazzling solo run that a 19-year old Cristiano Ronaldo would have been proud of.
With five wins in a row under their belt at the finals, Italy will head into the clash with Spain confident of reaching their second Euro showpiece in the last three tournaments, having lost 4-0 to the Spaniards in their 2012 showdown.
Italy have amassed 11 goals at Euro 2020, their record in a single European Championship surpassed on the big stage only by the 12 they netted in winning the 2006 World Cup, and again they seem to have all the ingredients for a title charge.
(Writing by Zoran Milosavljevic; Editing by Ken Ferris)