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The England fans sang “It’s Coming Home”, but a banner at the blue end of Wembley begged to differ. “Football’s Coming Rome” might not be good grammar, but a little artistic licence must be allowed when your team is making history in hostile territory as Italy did on Sunday night.
Thirty-four games unbeaten, and now the champions of Europe. Who ever could have imagined such a scenario when Roberto Mancini took charge three years ago? His first game was a friendly against Saudi Arabia, who were using the match as a tune-up event for a World Cup for which Italy had failed to qualify.
Yet Mancini refused to accept diminished ambitions. From day one, he stated his intention to “take Italy back where it deserves to be, on top of Europe and the world. We have not won a European Championship for many years, so that will be our first objective.”
Cross item one off the list. Italy conquered England the hard way at Wembley, winning via a penalty shootout for the second time in as many rounds.
Why not? They have taken the hard path all through this tournament. After finishing top of their group and surviving a last-16 battle with Austria, Italy had to defeat the world No 1 Belgium, as well as Spain, the opponents who beat them the last time they reached the final of this tournament, in 2012. All that was left was to beat England at their own home ground.
They even gave their hosts a head start. Roberto Mancini had played down the importance of a home crowd before kickoff, saying that his players would have “lots of other things to think about besides their fans”, but Luke Shaw’s second-minute strike gave the lie to that claim, the noise inside a packed Wembley unlike anything these players can have heard since the coronavirus pandemic hit the world.
Italy had not trailed at this tournament until that goal, and for 65 minutes it appeared this might be the one riddle they could not solve. For all the commitment and technical ability of their attackers, the Azzurri would need a veteran defender to dig them out of the hole. Who better to silence a home crowd than Leonardo Bonucci, a player who celebrates every goal by waving a finger in front of his face, inviting the doubters to “wash your mouth out”?
It was Mancini, though, who had changed the game with his substitutions, the introduction of Domenico Berardi for Ciro Immobile finally allowing Italy to achieve the width required to stretch England’s defence. As he hugged the right touchline, Lorenzo Insigne, operating now as a false nine, started to find space to operate inside. Bonucci’s goal arrived from a corner, but only after Italy had begun to build a head of steam.
Mancini has led Italy out of one of the darkest chapters in their football history, delivering not only results but much-needed joy. Italians have loved watching this team because they can tell that the team has loved playing together. After Italy’s win over Belgium, a giddy Insigne gushed that it had been “like having a game of five-a-side with my mates”.
Enthusiasm alone, though, can only get you so far. Italy reached the final of Euro 2020 because of the talent in their squad and because Mancini found a tactical system that drew out the best of it, a 4-3-3 that allowed Jorginho and Marco Verratti to dictate play from the middle, while the likes of Insigne, Federico Chiesa and Berardi could attack from the same wide positions they excel in for their club sides.
At Wembley, it seemed as though that system might not work. England’s early goal, coupled with Gareth Southgate’s switch to a back three, initially posed a question Italy could not solve. They could have all the ball they wanted in the middle of the pitch but nowhere to go with it, England’s wing-backs denying them their usual width by dropping to form a back five.
Mancini had faith in his bench to change the game. He has insisted all through this tournament that he has 26 starters in his squad, and his decision to throw Bryan Cristante and Federico Bernardeschi into this final after scarce prior involvement was further evidence that he believed in these words. The first of those players made a crucial flick for Italy’s goal.
The Azzurri have suffered their share of shootout heartbreaks, from a World Cup semi-final on home soil against Argentina in 1990 to Roberto Baggio blasting the ball over the bar in the final of USA 94.
They have known happier outcomes too, most famously in the final of the 2006 World Cup against France, but not forgetting Andrea Pirlo’s chip down the middle past Joe Hart in the quarter-final of Euro 2012.
This one will rank up with the best. There is catharsis for Italy after that failure to qualify in 2018 and for Mancini at Wembley as well. He has never forgotten the European Cup final that he lost as a player for Sampdoria back in 1992. That demon has now been conquered, and better yet with his former teammates Gianluca Vialli and Attilio Lombardo working alongside him on the Italy staff.
They have placed Italy back on top of Europe, just as Mancini promised he would do three years ago. Now, all that is left is to conquer the world.