Oli Gent | Sports Editor
England 1 (Shaw 2’) 1(p) Italy (Bonucci 67’), Wembley Stadium
They came, they saw, they conquered.
Italy are European champions after a dramatic final at a packed Wembley, living up to their billing as mid-tournament favourites. But it will be seen as a huge missed opportunity for England and Gareth Southgate – a fairy-tale run didn’t get its just ending in front of a home crowd – as Roberto Mancini’s Roman warriors used their vast experience and defensive nous to eke to victory.
The ‘hosts’ – on paper the away side, but realistically in their home stadium – couldn’t have wished for a better start inside a mere two minutes. Luke Shaw, one of the standout players this tournament, started and finished a wonderfully crafted attacking move that ripped the Italian core apart; running through talismanic captain Harry Kane, who slid a mesmerising ball through for the onrushing Kieran Trippier, with Kyle Walker doing his best Chris Basham impression on the outside as the overlapping centre-back. The Atletico Madrid wing-back’s delivery was perfect, and there, unmarked at the far post, was Shaw, to fire home a shot that he will never hit more sweetly. Wembley was rocking.
Kane was at his playmaking best in the pockets: dropping deep, linking and spreading the play, allowing Raheem Sterling and Mason Mount to buzz in behind and around the Italy defensive line to cause a nuisance. Shaw and Trippier flew forward to maintain the width, safe in the knowledge that the pace of Walker in the back three would cover them aptly. Declan Rice turned into prime Zinedine Zidane with his ball-carrying, with his midfield partner in crime Kalvin Phillips, energetic throughout, hassling and harassing the more technical Italian creators, Jorginho and Marco Verratti. It was coming home.
Or so we thought.
Italy would start to go through the gears as the match wore on: in-form Federico Chiesa finally managed to escape the warmth of Shaw’s pocket to crack a shot narrowly wide of Jordan Pickford’s near post, and Ciro Immobile crashed a shot against John Stones on the stroke of half time as the Three Lions went in at the break with their slender lead intact.
Such a promising 45 minutes was undone by a much less spectacular 45. England came out negatively – parking the bus, as some would call it – as they sat deep and willed their visitors onto them, allowing more space for the dangerous, deep-lying playmaking of Verratti and Jorginho, who were beginning to get more joy with their penetrative passes into the England final third, and more prominently, between the England lines.
Immobile would be sacrificed in an eyebrow-raising substitution by Mancini, but it would work a charm. Domenico Berardi, his replacement – not a natural centre forward – would rotate with Lorenzo Insigne off the left flank, with the 5’4” Napoli man finding himself in dangerous half-spaces, picking the ball up on the edge of the area thanks to his thorny movement.
Insigne would force Pickford into his first real save of the evening with a curler off the right boot, and the Everton goalkeeper would be called into action yet again 10 minutes later to deny Chiesa a wonderful solo goal at the near post.
Ultimately, England’s defensive resilience was for nothing. Dissected and exposed from the set play with 23 minutes to go, the Three Lions didn’t deal with the near post flick from the corner, and Leonardo Bonucci, the veteran centre-half, was there to gobble up a ricocheted rebound to silence the home supporters.
In the space of six minutes, England could have found themselves 2-1 behind. Berardi denied when clean-through by Pickford, after another breath-taking, floated pass from Verratti found the Sassuolo forward with only the ‘keeper to beat. The former Sunderland man stood tall and strong, and Southgate’s men could heave huge sighs of relief.
As extra time began, England nerves were jangling. The back five had been scrapped: Trippier off, Bukayo Saka on – 4-3-3 it was. Jordan Henderson also had entered the fray – he replaced Declan Rice when perhaps it should really have been Phillips who departed the action. But there was one thing on everyone’s lips: no Jack Grealish.
In only their second ever major final – at home – there was a sense of urgency that was needed in the England camp, but had not been ignited yet. The fans prayers were answered nine minutes into the additional half-hour: the Aston Villa skipper announced his arrival with an immediate take-on of Giovanni di Lorenzo, who hastily chopped ball and Grealish to give away a corner. Wembley roared its delight.
Neither side threatened in the extra period: England struggled to break down a deeper Italian block as Mancini’s men adopted a more ‘catenaccio’ approach; Messrs Giorgio Chiellini and Bonucci stalwarts at the heart of the visiting defence, with Emerson and di Lorenzo supporting them well when tucked in.
Kalvin Phillips went close with an effort from the edge of the box preceding an initial corner, but that was as close as either side got as penalties loomed near.
Manchester United wingers Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho were sent on with two minutes of the 120 to go, as preparation for the shootout ensued, but neither introduction would bear any fruit: both men missing from 12 yards.
Berardi and Kane got both sides off to the ideal start, before a big save from Pickford down to his left denied Andrea Belotti, and England seized the advantage. Harry Maguire, an ever present for club and country, capped off his excellent performance with a well-finished spot kick, and Bonucci followed him, levelling with a slight touch of fortune: Pickford grazing the ball with his fingertips on its way past him.
Rashford’s stuttering run-up hindered his momentum – a tame penalty – off the post. Advantage wiped away with a cool Fernando Bernadeschi finish.
Sancho stuttered in his run-up as well, and was foiled too by the brilliant Gianluigi Donnarumma, giving Italy, and more pertinently Jorginho, match point.
The Brazilian-born Chelsea midfielder had not missed a single spot kick at the tournament but was kept out magnificently by a combination of Pickford’s strong right hand, the post, and a hurried second gather from the England goalkeeper.
The nerves hadn’t completely gone, though. Saka, the Arsenal 19-year-old, had to score to keep Southgate’s redemption dreams alive. He didn’t.
A devastating way to finish what had been such a promising progression from an England side that had been heavily scrutinised – and more importantly, from a manager who had had calls for his head day after day with his team and squad selections.
Southgate has proved from this tournament that he can indeed manage at this level, but we must remain realistic: he had one of the strongest and deepest squads in the competition, alongside a favourable draw whereby the opposition were vastly inferior, and the games were all at Wembley, bar one. His substitutions throughout the tournament have been spot-on, but previous criticisms and problems came back to bite him in the final: his decisions to make changes were too late in the game, and the type of subs he was making were not the ideal changes to make. Saka came on ahead of Grealish, when one could argue that the Villa man is better off the left, as Sterling is off the right.
Henderson was a good change – giving impetus and leadership to a beleaguered side – but it was clear for all to see that Declan Rice was the better of the holding midfielders, and that really, Phillips should have made way. Grealish was not introduced soon enough into the game, and again it was made clear his effect on the side as the Three Lions’ performance levels increased drastically after his introduction.
The initial decision to start with a back five was criticised, as too was the inclusion of Trippier from the start, but the manager was vindicated in his thinking as the former set up Shaw to open the scoring, with the latter not getting that opportunity at the far post had he been playing in a back four.
Desperately disappointing for England, regardless. It hasn’t come home, but lessons have been learned, and we now know that this group of players is good enough to reach a major final at an international tournament.