Kolkata: At the venue of their biggest triumph this century, Italy returned for the first time since July 9, 2006 and were Swiss-knifed. Like in every edition barring 2012, the European Championship will have new winners.

Switzerland players celebrate their second goal. (AFP)

Switzerland had not beaten Italy since 1993 but that piece of statistic beggared belief, so good were they in Berlin on Saturday. Ruben Vargas, the pocket rocket on Switzerland’s left, scored within a minute of the second half starting. It was a delicious bender that gave Gianluigi Donnarumma no chance but that the move began after Italy lost possession at kick-off epitomised the disarray in the blue ranks. The 2-0 win took Switzerland to the quarter-final where they will meet the winners of England-Slovakia.

But for Donnarumma, the first match in the round of 16 would have been over as a contest at half-time. The big goalkeeper, hero of Italy’s triumph last time around, kept out Breel Embolo’s shot, the Switzerland striker possibly guilty of having given away which way he would go, and Fabian Rieder’s free-kick which nearly snaked in at the near post.

But in between, Donnarumma could do little when Vargas found Remo Freuler who had ghosted into the box. Freuler controlled the ball with his right foot and volleyed low with his left leaving Donnarumma and Italy spread-eagled. This was not a contest, it was concert against chaos.

From trying to find Embolo with a long ball to moving it around with the precision of clockwork, Switzerland bossed from the off. They shot from distance and Dan Ndoye even tried a scissors-kick where he made no contact with the ball. Even before the goals, the chasm between the teams was evident in the way the ball was stolen from Nicolo Barella in the 34th minute and Alessandro Bastoni before that. Manuel Akanji dispossessed Gianluca Scamacca with such ease that it felt like a kickabout between men and boys.

Scamacca hit the upright but may have been off-side. The closest Italy came to testing Switzerland goalkeeper Yann Sommer was from a Fabian Schar back-header that would have been the tournament’s eighth own-goal.

There is history between the neighbouring countries who share a 740km border. There was the 3-0 win for Italy in Euro 2020 but two draws against Switzerland with Jorginho missing penalties in both hugely contributed to Italy not making their second successive World Cup finals. Sommer saved one and Jorginho blasted the other over.

There is friendship too as Sommer has five teammates from Inter Milan among the Azzurri in Germany. “We’ve stopped contacting one another because both sides are focusing on the task at hand,” said Sommer before the match.

A lot has happened since. Head of delegation in 2021, Gianluca Vialli died of cancer in January 2023 and in August his friend and Italy coach Roberto Mancini moved to Saudi Arabia. Mancini’s successor Luciano Spalletti omitted most of those who had beaten England in the final in Wembley. “In football you need new incentives, new blood,” said the 65-year-old who won league titles in Russia, two cup titles with Roma and ended Napoli’s after-Maradona drought.

Switzerland had a poor qualifying campaign finishing second behind Romania in the group and it was only days before the draw that coach Murat Yakin knew he was staying. But they have looked slick in the finals with draws against Scotland and Germany after beginning with a 3-1 win against Hungary. Skipper Granit Xhaka played an important role in first-time Bundesliga champions Bayer Leverkusen losing only once in 2023-24. Xherdan Shaqiri rolled back the years, Kwado Duah was a surprise selection that worked well, Embolo has been among goals and Ndoye has shown pace and poaching skills.

Italy’s campaign has been iffy and that is putting a positive ring to it. Twenty-three seconds against Albania, they were trailing. They recovered to win 2-1 but in a contest between two teams in transition, Spain showed the defending champions that they had reset better. Then, Italy needed a last-minute shot against Croatia to stay alive; wonderful as the strike was, Mattia Zaccagni’s goal came against the run of play. That Riccardio Calafiori, whose confident surge up the pitch led to the goal, was suspended meant defender Gianluca Mancini had big shoes to fill. It was one of the six changes Spalletti had made. He could have made as many at any point of time in the match and it wouldn’t have mattered. Spalletti introduced Zaccagni at half-time and a goal happened at the other end.