After a gruelling yet eventful tournament, Italy have once again established themselves as elites in Europe. After several agonizing years exiting tournaments in early stages or indeed missing out all together (despite harbouring a lot of talent), Italy’s place at Europe’s top table had been in question coming into Euro 2020. Viewed as a team in transition, they were never truly expected to do anything of note at this tournament. But maybe they should have been. On an unbeaten run dating back to 2018 entering Euro 2020, they were clearly the most consistent and balanced team in European international football. That run was extended as Italy brush past their group and knockout round opponents to extend their unbeaten run to 34 games and etch their name once more on the Henri Delaunay Cup for the second time in their history.
Road to redemption after World Cup misfortune
Roberto Mancini has swiftly changed the fortunes in his three-year tenure with the Azzurri after the Gian Piero Ventura experiment failed miserably. From missing out on the World Cup in 2018, he has taken it upon himself to experiment with younger inexperienced talents like Spinazzola, Chiesa, Berardi, Barella, Pessina to name a few with phenomenal results. After a dominant display at the previous World Cup, France were considered as favourites running up to the Euros followed by Spain, Germany and England. As mentioned before, Italy’s name did not pop up as the critics felt this team’s mettle had not yet been tested at the highest level.
Even after breezing through the group stages, Italy were still being questioned after an unsteady display against Austria in the Round of 16. The next two games would define their class over the rest of the contestants with a composed display against Belgium providing no space for Kevin de Bruyne to make any drives and a gritty performance to hold out over a Spanish side that outclassed them in the first half of regular time. They certainly made it to the Finals from a tougher bracket having gone through Spain and Belgium to face an enthusiastic England team in front of a hostile home crowd.
It’s Coming Home
Due to Covid regulations, UEFA downsized the locations of the matches to few key arenas and the final and semi-finals were all decided to be played on English soil in Wembley due to UK’s swift vaccination schemes and loosening of restriction for fans presence at the stadiums. This meant England had an advantage and higher motivation to play for the trophy on home soil. England boast a very talented squad which has only improved after their semi-final run in Russia three years ago. Now a more experienced squad was ready to fight for the coveted trophy with fans chanting “It’s Coming Home” before the tournament commenced. England proceed with an unsteady display in the group stages but, outclassed Germany tactically in the round of 16 breaking ghosts of the tournament’s past. England then cruised past Ukraine and made it to the finals through some luck to get past Denmark in extra time (England played better in extra time and were clearly threatening although it was not a penalty). With a solid defence in Maguire and Stones protected well by Rice and Philips, an ever confident Sterling linking well with Harry Kane upfront and impacts subs who could change the flow of the game in Sancho, Rashford and Grealish, England had a case to put up a strong fight against Italy.
A final game deadlocked till the last kick
The game started with a bang with England making their mark with a goal from Luke Shaw on the heels of a beautiful counter-attack. 1-0 down, Italy now had to fight for their way back in to make a case for the trophy. Italy played a curious game holding possession and playing short passes trying to find gaps for a breakthrough but, the English defence was steadfast and held strongly and tried to create chances with breakaways but, could not find the final ball. Raheem Sterling was making runs but had a tough night with Chiellini, Barella and Di Lorenzo breaking down any potential threats. Harry Kane was also neutralized and outmuscled with three players on him whenever he had the ball in possession. At the other end, Insigne tested the waters but, could only take weak shots from outside the box. England looked confident and composed and played out the first half with the lead.
Both sides made no changes come the second half of regular time. Italy played some long balls into the box but, they did not possess the specific talents to land the ball so Mancini introduced two changes to his side with the introduction of Cristante replacing Barella and Berardi to replace Immobile who was quite all game. Italy now wanted to get the ball in the box instead of playing short passes to breakthrough and after a few decent plays (Chiesa was a beast on one-on-one challenges) got their equalizer through Bonucci who scrapped a goal after the initial ball into the box was tipped over Maguire. England’s biggest error was that they gave possession to Italy for long period of the game and could not get the ball from Jorginho or Veratti. Italy took momentum and created more chances with notable attempts from Berardi and Chiesa. Southgate made two changes to change the flow of the game and get back into gear with the introduction of Henderson for Rice and Saka for Trippier. But, taking back possession after spending long period of the game defending proved to be difficult with only some set piece action the game looked primed for extra time.
Extra time proceeded slowly with neither side unable to threaten for goal, Italy brought on their final substitutes Bernardeschi for Bellotti and Locatelli for Verrati to replace a tiring starting line-up and England brought on Grealish for Mount. But neither side could find the space to create a scoring opportunity and game was set for penalties and managers were ready. With only 2 minutes of extra-time left, the England managers last two substitutes were questionable not for the players brought in but, for the player removed. Jordan Henderson who was a second half substitute was taken off for Rashford and Sancho replaced Walker. Italy won the coin toss and start the penalty shootout
The first penalty was Italy’s and they scored through Berardi; Kane then replied with a calm penalty. Bellotti stepped up for the second penalty having scored his penalty with Spain but, was saved by Pickford and England then scored their second through Maguire. Bonucci stepped up for the third penalty for italy and confidently executed the ball. Marcus Rashford then had a chance to give England the momentum. The Manchester United frontman has taken many penalties for his club and was brought on for his penalty record. But he scuffed his shot hitting the post. Italy could now take advantage. Federico Bernardeschi stepped up and stowed away boldly down the middle. Jadon Sancho then stepped up for the fourth which was saved by Donnarumma. With all seemingly lost for England as Jorginho, Italy’s penalty expert who won it against Spain stepping up, Pickford made yet another save to give England a lifeline. The last kick for England is taken by the 19-year-old Bukayo Saka who has never taken a penalty at Senior level. He took the long walk down to face Italy’s big man in Donnarumma standing tall at 6 foot 5 inches. He runs up to his kick but, it is saved and Italy take the win. The win garnering smiles across the world and celebrations across the nation. Mancini’s men will be glorified in history books for their courage and persistence.
Team of the Tournament:
With the tournament completed, we can look at the best players across all contestants who displayed their talents at this month-long battle.
The “Player of the tournament” award winner deservedly was influential in Italy’s winning run. The new PSG big man kept clean sheets in all three group stage games and was influential in the penalty shootouts against Spain and England.
Spinnazola was one of the best players for Italy who provided a dynamic change of play for Italy. Similar to the left back of past (Fabio Grosso whose heroics in semi-final and finals of world cup 2006 will be forever remembered), he frequently ran down the lane and found his teammates. He was crucial in providing the assist against Austria to break the deadlock and was influential through the tournament, had it not been for his injury in the semi-finals, he would have made a strong case for “Player of the Tournament” award.
Bonucci was a confident and calm figure at the back clearing balls timely and formed a great partnership with Juventus teammate Chiellini. Bonucci also acted as the lynchpin to find his wings and strikers with long passes from the back providing another means of distribution. He was also the man to find the equalizer for Italy to get back into game in the Finals.
Laporte decision to play for Spain after having represented France youth levels came as a surprise as many expected the Manchester City man to play for France alongside Rafa Varane. But the centre back chose to represent Spain and was picked for the tournament squad. After a brief adjustment period in the group stages, he stepped up and took charge of the defence and formed a great backline alongside Pau Torres and Erik Garcia alongside veterans Cesar Azpilicueta and Jordan Alba. He was beneficial in Spain’s build-up from defence, he was crucial to break Croatia’s momentum after swinging to extra time and made the block on Italy’s break but, could not help the rebound falling to Chiesa who scored the goal. Many will argue Chiellini should have deserved this spot and there would be no debates but, Chiellini was exposed in some areas of the game especially in the game against Spain. Laporte brings a different element to Spain on top of being a leader in the defence somewhat akin to Bonucci.
There were few players who were as composed and as consistent as Kyle Walker at this tournament. Solid at the back and making blindingly fast and creative runs on attack, his awareness to pick out passes were also beneficial for England.
The Chelsea man has found a new lease to life under Tuchel after struggling to find playing time under Lampard guiding Chelsea to the Champions league trophy alongside Kante. He came into the tournament with superior confidence and was influential in providing flexibility to the Italian side linking the defence to the attack making interceptions alongside partner in crime Veratti. He also scored the beautiful penalty to end Spain’s run in the Semi-final.
Luis Enrique’s choice to start 18-year-old was a shock but, what we witnessed was the rise of a superstar talent. The “Young Player of the Tournament” winner played a very composed game with a 95% pass completion percentage. Barcelona have unearthed yet another gem who may form the core for the team for years to come.
The claims that Pogba plays better for his nation than for his club have been looming for some time. Although, I don’t see much merit it is an undeniable that his performance in this tournament has been anything but spectacular. There may be many names that could have easily put in this spot but, Pogba has been sensational for France. Even in the loss to Switzerland, he was the most influential threat on the field. Had it not been for the poor finishing of Mbappe and Coman’s lack of a final touch, France would have gone through to the Last 8. Nevertheless, Pogba’s silky smooth finish in the loss to the Swiss was a sight for sore eyes and Manchester United should do their best to retain his talents at Old Trafford.
Sterling was at his best for England at this tournament. He made several marauding runs down the lane and often nestled past several defenders to create chances for England. His pace and aggressive mentality were very crucial for England making it to the finals. He did everything possible to get England to the finals, this should give Pep Guardiola plenty to consider with the transfer window looming and Manchester City’s interest in Harry Kane.
My favourite player of the tournament, the Juventus loanee was a huge figure for Italy. His one-on-one drives were massive and he could not be stopped, he created several chances for himself and was a huge threat down the lane. The defenders had to always keep an eye on him as his dribbling was a constant threat and when the game against England was at a standstill and Ciro Immobile looked hazy, he made several drives without relying on Italy’s short pass strategy to create space for himself to take a shot. He had two shots on target and the spark behind Italy’s Equalizer. Italy’s offense dwindled when he was subbed in the Final. Chiesa in my opinion has a case for the “Best player of the Tournament” and anyone who watched him play with not argue on this point.
This should not come as a shock entry as the Czech Republic and Leverkusen big man has been phenomenal throughout the tournament carrying the small nation to the quarterfinals. He also scored quite possibly the goal of the tournament against Scotland. Cool and composed, he made waves and turned heads across the tournament.
Post by Subhash Narasimhan, Contributor to Back Of The Net