By Simon Evans
LONDON (Reuters) - Just three years after the pain and humiliation of failing to qualify for the World Cup, Italy are one win away from being crowned champions of Europe after a penalty shootout victory over Spain secured a place in Sunday's final at Wembley.
England or Denmark await Roberto Mancini's side who, while never producing the kind of exhilarating football they displayed earlier in the tournament, found the strength and grit to get through extra time and then hold their nerve in the shootout.
No-one could dispute that Mancini's unbeaten side are deserved finalists on the basis of their overall body of work in this tournament -- even if Spain will feel with justification that they were the better side in the semi-final.
It is now 33 matches since Italy last tasted defeat and that winning habit showed.
Penalty shootouts aren't a 'lottery', as they are sometimes called, but nor can their outcomes be easily explained, given the range of technical and psychological factors at play.
However, Italy showed real steel and confidence as they bounced back from Manuel Locatelli's poor missed opener, to score their next four penalties, including Jorginho's ice-cool winner.
It was the same mental strength that had helped Italy cope with having limited possession for large stretches of the game as Spain's Pedri ran the centre of midfield, showing off his relentless precision passing.
Dani Olmo will regret that his goal efforts were not of the same precision but he was otherwise excellent, constantly searching for openings and asking questions of the Italian back line.
A swift break from the Italians, culminating in a classy finish from Federico Chiesa, put the Azzurri ahead on the hour, a goal that showed much of what Mancini has instilled in his side.
Goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma was quick and alert as his smart roll-out launched the break and Chiesa was single-minded in his determination to find the far corner.
And after Alvaro Morata came off the bench to level the contest in the 80th minute, there was no desperation or panic in the response and no dropping of heads.
It is precisely that combination of characteristic Italian defensive steel and focus with energetic pressing and directness in the final third that has been the key to Mancini's transformation of a team that was a national disgrace three years ago.
They believe in each other, they believe in their coach and that confidence and unity has powered them to the final.
The Azzurri made an instant impact in this tournament with their impressive displays in the group stage, sweeping aside Turkey and Switzerland, in 3-0 wins.
The pundits applauded the energy and directness of Mancini's side but in the knockout stage they have shown they still have the more traditional qualities of Italian football.
They needed extra time to get past Austria in the last 16 and then a disciplined 2-1 win over Belgium before coming through their toughest test yet.
Donnarumma was the hero with the save from Morata's spot-kick that made the difference and he was quick to point to the qualities that have taken his team all the way.
"We are only one step away from realising our dream. Spain are very strong, but this Italy side has a lot of courage, we never give up," he said.
(Reporting by Simon Evans; Editing by Christian Radnedge)