Alvaro Morata once likened facing Giorgio Chiellini to trying to take a banana off a gorilla in a cage. Here, it looked as if he had taken something much, much bigger from him, but in the end it got snatched back. After an epic battle, that place in the final on Sunday is Italy’s, not Spain’s.

For Luis Enrique’s side, and especially for the striker who had scored the goal that seemed to have saved Spain only to miss their last penalty, where there had been redemption there was now regret.

As the ball eased slowly past Unai Simón, Italy’s players sprinted towards the end where their fans were going wild, limbs everywhere. Spain’s crumpled, exhausted and defeated at last on the night they produced their best performance.

Morata could only watch as Jorginho did what he had been unable to do seconds before. While he and everyone else had been on edge, somehow the Chelsea midfielder appeared at ease, the cruelness for Morata and his teammates deepened still further by how calmly he rolled in the decisive shot, the knife slipped in slowly.

Morata was not the only player to miss his penalty – the superb Dani Olmo had sent his effort sailing over – but it was the fourth, decisive spot-kick, and that hurt a man for whom these have been difficult weeks and who was denied closure. At least there was no reproach this time, no whistling, and no anger like on other occasions, just sadness, a touch of sympathy too. “I gave him a hug and my thanks – he had allowed us to dream,” said Luis Rubiales, the president of the Spanish football federation.

“We’re gutted but very proud; we went toe to toe with the best Italy I can remember,” Jordi Alba said. Toe to toe? For much of the night, Spain had gone beyond that, the better team here. A team that few had believed in to begin with got further than anyone expected and, when it came to it, played better than anyone had imagined. All the way to penalties in the semi-final, forging a unity and an identity for the future over three consecutive games that went to extra time.

Álvaro Morata sent the Euro 2020 semi-final against Italy into extra time, after his goal for Spain in the 80th minute at Wembley.
Álvaro Morata sent the Euro 2020 semi-final against Italy into extra time, after his goal for Spain in the 80th minute at Wembley. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

Even if that final step, that final shot, had evaded them, even if some doubts remain, there are reasons to look upon this competition with fondness and towards the next World Cup with optimism – not least because of the ages of Olmo, Ferran Torres, Eric Garcí­a, and the wonderful Pedri who reached 90 minutes here having not misplaced a single pass.

“After nine years crossing the desert, we’re back,” Rubiales insisted. They had hoped to return in three days’ time, which they will not, but he may be right.

Not that it was much consolation. Ultimately Spain were denied by what their manager called “details”. Goals, basically: 16 shots yielded just one. Morata got it, rescuing a team that shouldn’t have needed rescuing and taking them into extra time with 10 minutes left. Dashing through the middle, he exchanged passes with Olmo and stroked a neat, left-footed finish past Gianluigi Donnarumma – not so much a shot as pass into the net – before setting off running. Skidding to his knees, performing Kiko Narvaez’s and Fernando Torres’s archer celebration, he blew a kiss to the camera.

This time, the whole country could have kissed him back. Of all the people, it had to be him: the man who had been packed off to the competition to sound of Spain fans singing “How bad you are!”, who had heard them whistle him and abuse his family, who revealed in worrying terms just how much it affected him, and who had missed a penalty and then scored an astonishing extra-time goal to finally defeat Croatia, had done it again. And on this day of all days: the biggest match there is, against Italy, Spain’s greatest rivals and his wife’s country, up against them too: Chiellini and Bonucci, men who know him and his weaknesses like no others.

On the day when he hadn’t started, but he would finish. Asked about his team earlier in the European Championship, Luis Enrique had revealed that he would play “Morata and 10 others”. He had fought for his forward, offered a determined defence, stats and all. “I have never felt so supported,” Morata said. Here, though, he didn’t include the striker at all. He didn’t include any striker in fact, instead going for Olmo through the middle.

The lineup might have felt like nod to the recent past, a glorious time they almost got back to here. In the final against Italy in 2012, after a tournament of doubts about the strikers and accusations that Spain were boring, they had played with a false nine in the final against Italy – and scored four. This time it didn’t happen but it wasn’t as far off as the result might suggest, Olmo’s clear early opening and Mikel Oyarzabal’s header wide just the clearest of many chances untaken until Morata was introduced.

When he escaped Chiellini and scored with 10 minutes to go, seeming to tilt the balance Spain’s way, the stadium roared and the story seemed to be written. It had to be you. But it had to be him standing on the spot too, a final, cruel twist at the last.