“It’s Coming Home”
‘It’s Coming Home to Rome”
A couple of lines that have set the cat among the pigeons in the last few days as the countdown to the 2020 Euro final touched fever pitch.
Which one do you pick? European football’s most important question for the weekend. And on both sides is a 50-year-plus itch to take care of.
England are playing their first final since the 1966 World Cup, which they won at Wembley, and Italy, having reached one of their lowest points in their history by not making it to the World Cup in 2018 for the first time since 1958, eye a second European crown, a first since 1968.
While the Italians coached by the stylish Roberto Mancini have not tasted defeat in 33 consecutive games, England have kept 10 clean sheets in their 12-match unbeaten streak, where they drew only once.
What’s Happened So Far?
Return of the Azzurri
Italy opened the tournament in Rome with a record-breaking 3-0 win against Turkey – they had never in their 39 games in the competition scored 3. The Azzurri, remember, had plummeted to one of their lowest points in their footballing history when they didn’t qualify for the World Cup in 2018, a first since 1958.
In walked Roberto Mancini as the Italians went back to the drawing board and rebuilt with an eye on the Euros. Compact as ever in defence and relentless in attack with Jorginho running the show in the centre of the park, Italy smashed 7 goals without reply against Turkey, Switzerland, and Wales in the group stage, before grinding out an extra-time win over Austria, then beat Belgium in the quarterfinals in a game that will be remembered as a classic, despite losing star left-back Leonardo Spinazzola to a torn Achilles tendon.
In the semi-finals, they exacted revenge for the 2012 final defeat against Spain in an intense penalty shootout to become only the second team after Germany to be part of 10 major tournament finals. Their goalkeeper, Gianluigi Donnarumma, has never conceded more than one goal per game for Italy and has kept 3 clean sheets so far in the Euros.
Under Mancini, Italy have played with great elan in attack and also not shifted away from their decades-old traditional style of defending led by Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci. After underperforming for a while in the last decade, Italy with Mancini at the helm found a breath of fresh air and boy have they come alive! There has been a higher emphasis on aggressive pressing and it has resulted in Italy playing some slick football for the first time in years.
Italy would become the fourth multiple Euro winners with victory at Wembley, joining Germany and Spain (3 titles) and France (2).
The Lion in Its Den
England coached by Gareth Southgate came into the tournament with plenty of expectations, and not without reason, from a young, exciting, and highly talented bunch of attackers like Sancho, Rashford, Foden, Sterling, Kane, Grealish, and Saka among others.
But it was their defensive solidity that has seen them through the toughest days in the showpiece tournament, an aspect that was initially considered a chink in the armour as the expectation among experts was that the Three Lions’ attack would roar loudest.
While some of the fancied attack mostly warmed the benches in the group stage, those who played, mostly found it tough to get into their free-flowing rhythm. Controlled and with a few gears to go, England topped the group scoring a goal each against Croatia and Czech Republic while playing out a 0-0 draw against Scotland.
Even as the noise rose about the tactics ahead of the next game against one of their bitterest rivals, Germany, Southgate stuck to his guns, Kane thankfully found the back of the net as did Sterling, ending their 55-year long losing streak against the Germans in knockout games since 1966.
The Three Lions went to Rome next where they turned up the style, retained their shape and blew away Ukraine 4-0, registering a 5th consecutive clean sheet for Jordan Pickford, who not only matched Iker Casillas’ record from 2012 in the competition but also eclipsed Gordon Banks’ 720-minute record stretching back to 1966. Back home for the semi-final, England edged past Denmark after a scare and a controversial penalty.
Will Wembley Behave?
Expected to be a party across Europe when it was assigned a pan-continent format, the delayed 2020 edition of the competition ends in London at the iconic Wembley. The English fans are delighted and understandably so about the fact that the men’s team have made it to a major final after five-and-a-half decades, but they have also left a sour taste in the mouth with respect to their behaviour.
Jeering opposing national anthems and their own players who have taken the knee as a gesture against racism, having a go at the Germans, and flashing a laser beam at Denmark goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel when Kane took a penalty in the semi-final win have all culminated in UEFA opening disciplinary proceedings against England.
With 65,000 set to attend the final, the atmosphere will no doubt be electric, and the Italians will be outnumbered by the English, whom we can only hope will be kinder.
Southgate and Mancini’s Moments in the Sun
Both managers have lost a semi-final for their country. While Roberto Mancini tasted defeat in a Euro semi-final, the only major tournament for the senior Italian where he played an active part, against Soviet Union in 1988, one of Southgate’s worst moments in his professional career would be the penalty miss in 1996 at Wembley against Germany.
Mancini was part of the Italian side in the home World Cup of 1990, when West Germany won, and he didn’t play a single minute before his international career ended in dispute when he was denied a starting spot for the 1994 World Cup. On 20 June, against Wales, Mancini ensured every player of his squad had some minutes by bringing on goalkeeper Salvatore Sirigu in place of Donnarumma.
Meanwhile, after a 2016 Euro exit against Iceland, England were at their lowest and two years later Italy found themselves in that position as well. Gareth Southgate was not the man chosen to lead England's revival. The FA had selected Sam Allardyce for that role but when his reign was cut short by ill-judged comments to a hidden camera, the Under-21 coach was given the job.
Mancini and Southgate had very different but similar tasks – pick up the pieces from lowest points in their history. Now it’s their moment in the sun. Will the Italians complete mission Renaissance or will the boisterous English make it another first?
The ingredients for a cracking final on Sunday night are all in place and there don't seem to be too many cooks to spoil the broth.