He knew it would end one day but Roberto Mancini could not have expected Italy’s unbeaten run to grind to such an unruly halt, with Leonardo Bonucci losing his cool and Gianluigi Donnarumma booed by his own fans.
It was a frantic contest played out at a breathless tempo and Spain were impressive, reaching the UEFA Nations League final courtesy of two first-half goals by Manchester City’s Ferran Torres.
Italy’s sublime sequence of results, without defeat in 37 games stretching back more than three years and culminating at Wembley when they crushed English dreams to win Euro 2020 title, is over.
Ferran Torres (left) scored twice as Spain reached the Nations League final by beating Roberto Mancini’s Italy 2-1 in Milan
The result means Mancini’s Italy have lost for the first time in 37 matches, a record-breaking run in international matches
ITALY (4-3-3): Donnarumma; Di Lorenzo, Bonucci, Bastoni, Emerson; Jorginho (sub Pellegrini 64), Barella (sub Calabria 72), Verratti (sub Locatelli 58); Bernadeschi (sub Chiellini h/t), Chiesa, Insigne (sub Kean 58)
Subs not used: Sirigi, Raspadori, Berardi, Dimarco, Acerbi, Cristiante, Meret
Goal: Pellegrini 83
Booked: Bonucci, Locatelli
Red Card: Locatelli
Manager: Roberto Mancini
SPAIN (4-3-3): Unai Simon; Azpilicueta, Pau Torres, Laporte, Alonso; Koke (sub Merino 75), Gavi (sub Sergio Roberto 83), Busquets; Oyarzabal, Torres (sub Pino 49), Sarabia (sub Gil 75)
Subs not used: De Gea, Martinez, Garcia, Sanchez, Reguilon, Porro, Rodri, Fornals
Goals: Torres 17, 45+2
Booked: Azpilicueta, Sarabia, Oyarzabal, Pino
Manager: Luis Enrique
‘We knew sooner or later we would lose,’ said Mancini. ‘Better tonight than in the finals of the Euros or the World Cup but we will come through stronger despite defeat and we really understand we are a top side.
‘The red card had a big impact on the match. It is difficult to play against Spain with 11-against-11 because of the way they keep the ball. It’s even harder 10 against 11.’
Bonucci, captain as Giorgio Chiellini started on the bench, was dismissed in the 41st minute when Italy trailed 1-0. He had already received one yellow card for dissent when he thrust an elbow into the throat of Sergio Busquets as they challenged in the air and was shown another, and then a red.
‘He made a mistake,’ said Mancini. ‘The sort of mistake you can’t afford to make in fixtures such as these.’
No sooner had Bonucci disappeared from the scene than Torres pounced again for his second, a header from a cross by Mikel Oyarzabal, who also created the first, converted with a difficult volley made to look easy.
City are desperately in need of a goalscorer, apparently, but Torres has scored seven in 11 games this season for club and country.
It has been a rough ride home for Donnarumma, Player of the Tournament at Euro 2020 in a summer when he also left AC Milan for Paris Saint-Germain on a free transfer.
He returned to the city on the eve of this game to be greeted by an enormous banner hanging from a bridge outside the team hotel. ‘Donnarumma in Milan you will never be welcome again,’ it read and then, ‘Man of Sh**’, signed by the club’s Curva Sud ultras.
His every touch drew shrieks and whistles from the steep stands inside the San Siro and he shook his nerves. He fumbled crosses and one shot by Marcos Alonso slithered through hands and hit a post.
‘He wouldn’t have enjoyed it just as we didn’t like it,’ said Mancini. ‘It was disappointing when he is playing for Italy. But we’re big boys, and he played well in the second half.’
Torres poked home Mikel Oyarzabal’s cross from the left on 17 minutes to put Luis Enrique’s La Roja in front at the San Siro
Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma looks on dejected after he was booed by the Milan fans on his return to the San Siro
Lorenzo Insigne (left) missed a golden chance in the first-half to draw Italy level – before matters got worse for the Azzurri
Leonardo Bonucci (right) picked up two quickfire yellow cards – the second for an elbow on Spain captain Sergio Busquets
Luis Enrique selected Gavi who, is only seven games into his senior career at Barcelona and, at 17 years and 62 days, became Spain’s youngest ever international.
He broke a record set in 1936 by Angel Zubieta and looked perfectly at home as his team dominated possession. Spain might have closed the game out in the second half when Oyarzabal missed a header when he should have scored and Donnarumma produced a fine save to thwart Alonso.
Italy were also wasteful in front of goal. Unai Simon pushed a shot by Federico Bernadeschi against a post and Lorenzo Insigne missed a wonderful chance in the first half.
Federico Chiesa rattled a post from a tight angle after the interval before
Torres headed in a second goal for Spain on the stroke of half-time to make matters even more difficult for Italy in Milan
Lorenzo Pellegrini (right) pulled one back for Italy with seven minutes left to set up a grandstand finish but no equaliser came
Lorenzo Pellegrini cut the lead on the break in the 83rd minute.
No international team goes unbeaten for so long without serious fighting qualities and belatedly Italy did summon a fight but it was not enough.
Spain will return to the San Siro for the Nations League final on Sunday, against France or Belgium.
‘It’s a very nice victory,’ said Enrique. ‘The defeat was meant to happen for Italy, all series have an end. The world record is incredible and we’ve been faithful to what we are as a team.’
Sportsmail’s SAM BLITZ was on the live blog for Nations League semi-final coverage of Italy vs Spain