LONDON, England (Reuters) - Italy stormed into the last 16 scoring more freely than in past European Championships, but it is their near-impenetrable backline that makes them favourites to beat Austria in Saturday's knockout game and head deep into the tournament.
Italy won their first two games 3-0 - after never netting three before at the Euros - then also beat Wales 1-0 in their final group fixture despite resting senior players.
A solid Italian defence is nothing new.
So-called "catenaccio" (doorbolt) backlines from the 1960s and 1970s made Italian club teams feared opponents and gave the nation a reputation for defence. "The perfect game would end 0-0," Italian journalist Gianni Brera famously quipped.
Now the Italy defence is again one to be feared.
In three Euro 2020 games, the Azzurri have faced only 12 shots, on or off target.
Further back, Italy have kept a clean sheet in each of their last 11 matches in all competitions, going 1,055 minutes - 17 hours and 35 minutes - without conceding since a Donny van de Beek goal for the Netherlands last October.
One more clean sheet will see them equal their record of 12 consecutive games without conceding, set between 1972 and 1974.
Goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma, who has had little to do all tournament, could overtake Walter Zenga's record of the second-longest run without conceding - 936 minutes - on Saturday. Dino Zoff's all-time record of 1,143 unbeaten minutes could then be in reach.
Alongside his national run, no goalkeeper kept more clean sheets than Donnarumma's 14 in Serie A in 2020-21.
This is Austria's first appearance in the knockout stages of the Euros, and their first in the knockouts of any major tournament since the 1954 World Cup, when they reached the semi-final. So they will be keen to make an impression.
Fiery striker Marko Arnautovic is more than happy to ruffle some feathers, but Italy's rearguard will relish the competition.
One worry coach Roberto Mancini does have is over the fitness of Giorgio Chiellini. He and Leonardo Bonucci are normally Mancini's go-to centre-back partnership, with the club teammates possessing 214 Italy caps between them.
But there is plenty of experience - a key component of an Italian backline - in reserve. Francesco Acerbi, who played alongside Bonucci while Chiellini had a long injury layoff in 2019-20, is capable of seamlessly stepping in.
In knockout rounds, it is often the best defences that emerge victorious, given the nerves of the occasion stemming free-flowing, attacking football.
Protected brilliantly by Jorginho in midfield, and with the ever-reliable Donnarumma behind them, Italy's backline is set up to make any opposition struggle. Austria must hope for a rare off day if they are to have any chance of springing a surprise.
(Reporting by Peter Hall; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)