For Gareth Southgate, it had to be penalties. The personal history of the England manager has been shaped by his decisive foul on penalties against Germany in 1996 at this stadium in the semi-finals of this competition. Now, after a heartbreak 120 minutes of England’s first grand men’s final since the 1966 World Cup victory, when initial control gave way to a tense fight, it once again boiled down to the last test of nerves.
Southgate and his players have broken down so many psychological barriers in the past three years, reconnecting the team with the nation, beginning with the surge towards the 2018 World Cup semifinals in Russia. Back then, there was a win in a shootout against Colombia in the round of 16, only England’s second success in eight major tournament attempts; a big step forward.
Here at Euro 2020, there have been knockout wins over Germany, Ukraine and Denmark, an exciting odyssey and a throwback from a historic trend. Previously, England had won only one tie in this tournament; against Spain on penalties in 1996. But when the moment came, when sporting immortality had called in the form of England’s second great trophy, they fell awfully short.
Southgate could see penalties approaching during the final stages of overtime, when tired minds and bodies were the dominant theme, and he sent Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho ahead of them; the former played as an emergency right-back while England defended a last-gasp corner, which seemed risky.
Both would end up being the boys of the fall. With Jordan Pickford jumping low to save Italy’s second shot, taken by substitute Andrea Belotti, Rashford stepped up in the third round with a chance to make it 3-2. He stuttered, waiting for the goalkeeper, Gianluigi Donnarumma, to lunge, then launched his kick against the outside of the opposite post.
The momentum was decisively tilted in favor of Italy. After another substitute, Federico Bernardeschi, had scored, Sancho saw Donnarumma go the right way to save him. Jorginho comes in to win it, and yet Pickford kicks the post. England was hopeful. And then they had nothing when Bukayo Saka, who had also left the bank, was denied by Donnarumma. It was quite a call from Southgate to entrust the fifth kick to a 19-year-old.
In the end, it would be a depressingly familiar bad luck story for England because, make no mistake, they had held the key to glory in their hands. The Southgate team had enjoyed an initial joy when Luke Shaw scored his first international goal, a magnificent half volley on the first move of the game. England had been comfortable in the first half of normal time, keeping Italy largely at arm’s length, Southgate’s tactic, which included a reversion to a wing system, looking well judged.
But the game escaped them in the second half, Italy raised the temperature, took a higher step, immobilized England. There were long periods when the Southgate players couldn’t get out. The approach felt bad, Southgate powerless to stem the tide.
It was tense and the similarities to the 2018 World Cup semi-final defeat against Croatia were clear, England sat more deeply and uninspired. Italy got the draw they deserved in the second half thanks to Leonardo Bonucci and England held on, at times, for the extra 30 minutes. It came to feel like a slow and inexorable path to defeat.
For Italy, it was a second European Championship and glory for Roberto Mancini, whose work since taking over as coach of Gian Piero Ventura after failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup has been nothing short of sensational. Italy had the technical know-how; they have almost forgotten what defeat is. They are unbeaten in 34 games, a streak that spans nearly three years.
For England, it was a story of regret, and despite all the progress to this point, the welfare factor, the union of the nation behind a nice team, the result was always going to be the only thing that mattered. Southgate had even said it himself on Friday.
Shaw had ignited the beginning of the dream, driving forward after a moment of quick skill, feeding Harry Kane and continuing his run. The ball was worked to Kieran Trippier and, when he crossed, Shaw crashed on the half volley. It was a difficult skill to execute, with the ball crossing his body, and yet it made it look gloriously simple.
England were excellent for the first 20 minutes and while Italy leveled off, eventually grabbing the ball, with Lorenzo Insigne blinking down the left, Southgate’s side mainly kept them in front of them in the first half. Federico Chiesa was close and Ciro Immobile had a blocked shot, but that was it for Italy before the break.
How things would turn and the frustration for England was how little they created after the tide turned. Insigne took a free kick, Chiesa extended to Pickford and the tie for Italy had been signaled. It came when he broke a corner for Marco Verratti and saw a header turned to the post by Pickford. Bonucci forced himself to convert the rebound.
Southgate traded Trippier for Saka and changed from 3-4-3 to 4-3-3. Jordan Henderson also replaced Declan Rice. And yet Italy had the belief by now, they had the momentum and would make their superiority count in the bitter end. No one could say that he didn’t deserve it.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism