Monday, July 12, 2021

EURO 2020 Final: Azzurri Joy at the Last

 Italy 1:1 England, London

Italy won 3-2 on penalties.

EURO 2020 Final: Azzurri Joy at the Last

Mancini's magic beat Southgate's solidarity in the end.

Italy won their second European Championship on penalties after a tight 120 minutes at Wembley. Italy missed two spot kicks but England missed three and that was what separated the sides in the end.

It was mostly a tale of two defences with a beautiful early England goal equalised by a scrappy Italian one, but Italy played the better football overall and were not unworthy winners. Roberto Mancini's team had 62% of possession and six shots on target to England's one.

England failed to make home advantage count and the rain duly poured down on Wembley Way after the final whistle, reminding the locals the years of hurt are 55 and counting. Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling failed to breach the Azzurri ranks and apart from a wonderful opening, the home team failed to truly fire on the night.

The English fans had never stopped dreaming as their favourite song goes and had a fantastic start scoring from their first attack, but took a risk conceding possession to Italy for the rest of the match. Gareth Southgate also gambled badly choosing two young and inexperienced internationals in Bukayo Saka and Jadon Sancho to take vital penalties - both missed.

An unchanged Italy had met a safety-first England. Southgate had picked seven defensive players, clearly worried about the Azzurri attack.

He needn't have worried as wing backs Kieran Trippier and Luke Shaw combined to score in less than two minutes.

Shaw won the ball deep and as Kane moved upfield, Shaw continued his run unchecked by the ball-watching Italian defence. Kane released Trippier, whose curled cross was fired first time by Shaw, beating
Gianluigi Donnarumma at his near post; A delightful goal and a dream start, but Southgate stood almost unmoved on the touchline, ever the cool-headed general.

Trippier was finding space on the right, Kane collecting the ball deep and distributing, while Kalvin Phillips was scurrying around to stop the Italian combinations. So far so good for England.

The Three Lions were in cruise control for the first half hour but Italy began to combine worryingly in their half, although their final pass let them down. Their one moment of danger came in the 35th minute when Federico Chiesa shrugged off Declan Rice and motored forward, unleashing a rasping shot which whistled a foot wide.

England had kept Italy at bay for 45 minutes and Jordan Pickford had not had a save to make bar a comfortable gather from Marco Verratti in the final minute. 

Italy had bossed the ball but their plan to zig-zag one-touch through England's defence had not worked in the first half.

Italy took until 67 minutes to draw level but the warning signs had been coming. In the 57th Pickford blocked a Lorenzo Insigne shot from a tight angle and by the hour mark England were camped around their box as Italy buzzed around it. Chiesa then jinked onto his right foot and eked out a shot in the 62nd which Pickford dived to palm away.

When the goal came five minutes later it was after a penalty box scramble from a corner, which Leonardo Bonucci stabbed home. Italy's ball possession had increased to 71%.

England had gambled with their strong defence but had been breached and as for periods against Germany and Denmark, had conceded the midfield. Saka immediately replaced Trippier to go back to a 4-3-3. If Italy had a weakness it was dealing with pace on the flanks.

The rest of the 90 was more Italy passing and England holding firm. A comical respite was Giorgio Chiellini yanking back Saka's collar on the touchline when the Arsenal man beat him to the ball. England had a boost when Italy's danger man Chiesa hobbled off on 86 minutes.

By the end of the first period of extra time penalties seemed certain but in the second period England found a second wind. Jack Grealish came on but almost taken out the game by Jorginho's studs-up tackle, which drew a generous yellow from Bjorn Kuipers.

Southgate gambled in the dying seconds by bringing on Marcus Rashford and Sancho but both ended up missing their kicks. Rashford had sent Donnarumma the wrong way with his eyes but struck a post with the goal at his mercy.

Sancho's and Saka's kicks were better but the huge Donnarumma leapt to save them.

Penalties felt an inadequate way to settle a final, as ever, but neither side had forged enough chances to win it in a game when defences had definitely ruled, cancelling out each other's skilful attacks. 

The host's dream died in the final as it had at Euro 2004 and Euro 2016 but the home team had enjoyed a great run to the final and the England DNA project continues to bear fruit.  

EURO 2020 Final: Azzurri Joy at the Last

Even if Southgate was guilty of too much faith in youth tonight, the success he has brought to his country's national team remains admirable - a World Cup semi final and a European Championship final in consecutive tournaments is sterling work.

On a sour note, scenes of vandalism and violence in London today by 'fans' once more sullied the team's success. Wembley's security allowed ticketless fans to barge into the stadium on a night they have another reason to forget.

But tanti auguri to Italy. Mancini's transformation is complete. His team began and ended the tournament winning, playing with a new found happiness after missing the World Cup and overturning years of safety first football.

34 matches unbeaten is an extraordinary statistic. So is being crowned champions of Europe.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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