TEngland fans sang “It’s Coming Home”, but a banner at the blue end of Wembley asked to defer. “Football’s Coming Rome” may not be good grammar, but a bit of artistic license should be allowed when your team is making history in hostile territory like Italy did on Sunday night.
Thirty-four undefeated matches, and now European champions. Who could have imagined such a scenario when Roberto Mancini took over three years ago? Their first game was a friendly against Saudi Arabia, which was using the match as a preparation event for a World Cup for which Italy had not qualified.
However, Mancini refused to accept diminished ambitions. From day one, he expressed his intention to “take Italy back to where it deserves to be, on top of Europe and the world. We haven’t won a European Championship in many years, so that will be our first goal. “
Cross out item one from the list. Italy conquered England the hard way at Wembley, winning via a penalty shoot-out for the second time in as many rounds.
Why not? They have taken the hard road throughout this tournament. After finishing at the top of their group and surviving a round of 16 battle with Austria, Italy had to defeat world No. 1 Belgium, as well as Spain, the opponents who defeated them the last time they reached the final of this tournament, in 2012. All that was left was to beat England on their own turf.
They even gave their hosts a head start. Roberto Mancini had downplayed the importance of a home crowd before kick-off, saying his players would have “many other things to think about besides their fans,” but Luke Shaw’s goal in the second minute denied that claim, the noise inside a packed Wembley that is unlike anything these players have heard since the coronavirus pandemic hit the world.
Italy hadn’t been left behind in this tournament until that goal, and for 65 minutes it seemed like this might be the only riddle they couldn’t solve. Despite the commitment and technical skill of their attackers, the Azzurri would need a veteran defender to get them out of the hole. Who better to silence a local crowd than Leonardo Bonucci, a player who celebrates each goal by wagging a finger in front of his face, inviting skeptics to “wash their mouths”?
However, it was Mancini who changed the game with his substitutions, the introduction of Domenico Berardi by Ciro Immobile finally allowed Italy to reach the required width to stretch England’s defense. As he hugged the right touchline, Lorenzo Insigne, now operating as a false nine, began to find room to operate inside. Bonucci’s goal came from a corner, but only after Italy began to gather steam.
Mancini has pulled Italy out of one of the darkest chapters in its soccer history, delivering not just results but much-needed joy. The Italians have loved seeing this team because they can say that the team has loved playing together. After Italy’s victory over Belgium, a stunned famous said that it had been “like having a match of five with my teammates”.
However, enthusiasm alone can go so far. Italy reached the final of Euro 2020 because of the talent of its squad and because Mancini found a tactical system that brought out the best in it, a 4-3-3 that allowed Jorginho and Marco Verratti to dictate the game from the middle, while that he like Insigne, Federico Chiesa and Berardi could attack from the same open positions in which they excel in their teams.
At Wembley, it seemed like that system might not work. England’s early goal, coupled with Gareth Southgate’s move to three defenders, initially raised a question Italy couldn’t resolve. They could have all the ball they wanted in the middle of the field, but they had nowhere to go with it, the England wingers denied them their usual width as they fell to form a back five.
Mancini had faith in his bench to change the game. Throughout this tournament he has insisted that he has 26 starters in his squad, and his decision to put Bryan Cristante and Federico Bernardeschi into this final after little previous participation was further proof that he believed in these words. The first of those players made a crucial play for Italy’s goal.
The Azzurri have suffered their share of heartache on penalties, from a World Cup semi-final at home against Argentina in 1990 until Roberto Baggio threw the ball over the crossbar in the USA 94 final.
They have also seen happier results, most famously in the 2006 World Cup final against France, but not forgetting Andrea Pirlo’s chip in the middle against Joe Hart in the quarterfinals of Euro 2012.
This one will rank among the best. There is catharsis for Italy after they failed to qualify in 2018 and also for Mancini at Wembley. He has never forgotten the European Cup final he lost as a Sampdoria player in 1992. That demon has already been defeated, and even better with his former teammates Gianluca Vialli and Attilio Lombardo working alongside him on the Italy squad.
They have put Italy back at the top of Europe, just as Mancini promised he would do three years ago. Now, all that remains is to conquer the world.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism