By Anukul Chauhan
New Delhi [India], July 12 (ANI): In the end, it was just meant to head to Rome as Robert Mancini and his brave Italian side beat England at the Wembley Stadium in front of not just vociferous, but also at times disrespectful home fans on Sunday night.
For the team that had failed to qualify for the FIFA World Cup in 2018 and had not won the European Championship in 53 years, this redemption in the backyard of England, will taste a lot sweeter as the feeling sinks in after what was a thoroughly professional performance from the Azzurri.
England and Italy's road to the final were built on the defensive shoulders of their back-line so a tight contest was expected by many. But all these expectations were put to rest when Luke Shaw opened the scoring for the home side inside two minutes. Not to mention, it was all hell loose in North London at that moment as the left-back scored his first senior goal and the fastest in a Euro final.
If facing England at Wembley was not enough, Italy was now a goal down against the hosts. A normal team could have lost the game then and there. But this was not a normal team, this was a team that was on a 33-match unbeaten streak coming into the final.
The Azzurri must have been taken aback by the suddenness of Shaw's goal, but they showed nerves of steel as they regrouped, gained a foothold, and started stitching the passes together. Notably, in the second half, Italy's possession became increasingly fluid as they put England under immense pressure, forcing the Three Lions to chase the game. That Italy completed over twice as many passes as England in the final, 758 to 340, is perhaps as telling as it is surprising.
The trio of Nicolo Barella, Jorginho, and Marco Verratti stamped their dominance in midfield for the Italians as the pressure started to grow upon the home side, and eventually, it told. Domenico Berardi's corner caused all manner of problems to Jordan Pickford as Bonucci netted the ball into the goalpost in the 67th minute, bringing the scoreline level at 1-1. With this, Bonucci also became the oldest goal-scorer in the history of the Euro final.
Italy continued to play their game as they eclipsed England's superior physicality in the field very effectively. Three Lions also did well in defence to put numbers against Azzurri but in doing so they compromised their attacking chances.
None of the English forwards who started the game -- Kane, Raheem Sterling, and Mason Mount -- had a shot on target during the entire game. This was all due to the two defensive grandmasters Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini who neutralise England's attacking outlets very successfully during the high-intensity game.
With just wave after wave of Italians coming in, England was able to hold their fort courtesy of their defence which is also one of the best in Europe, as they conceded just two goals in almost 700 minutes throughout the tournament.
"We didn't keep the ball well enough in that initial period in the second half. It was our lack of composure in possession that turned the game. The way they used the ball was better than us," Southgate said after the game.
Italy suffered a major blow when Chiesa, their most effective player was forced off with an injury. Chiesa's departure took the flair out of the Italian attack but Southgate's changes -- bringing on Saka for Trippier and Jordan Henderson for Declan Rice -- failed to capitalise on that right-hand side where Italy clearly lacked the rest of the game.
No more goals were scored in the match, and hence the game had to progress to extra time. The extra time was also not able to separate the two teams, and hence the game progressed to the much-dreaded penalty shootout, which seesawed back and forth.
In the penalty shootout, Pickford denied Andrea Belotti and Jorginho; Rashford struck the post and Sancho, also introduced on 120 minutes, was denied by Donnarumma. Saka, the youngest man on the pitch, could have taken it to sudden death, but alas it was never meant to be, as Donnarumma saved the ball. Finally, England's unofficial anthem Sweet Caroline was silenced. Italy became the first side to win two penalty shoot-outs at a single Euro finals tournament.
With this famous triumph, Azzurri are now the fourth side to win multiple Euro titles after Germany (3), Spain (3) and France (2). The 53-year gap between their titles is the longest in Euro history. This Euro triumph may not be the pinnacle in Italian Football history but it is for sure that this renaissance of Mancini and his men will be remembered for a very long time in footballing folklore. Italy is now 34 matches unbeaten, dating back to September 2018.
For England, this seventh shoot-out loss in a major tournament should not diminish all that Southgate and his players have achieved en route to their nation's first major final in five and a half decades. Milestones worth recalling are the five straight clean sheets by a backline which conceded only twice (both set-piece goals) and the three straight knockout wins with which England advanced to the final -- the latter another of those feats last seen in that summer of '66. English fans' hurt and wait for an international trophy continues but (maybe) all of this can change come 2022. (ANI)