LONDON – Roberto Mancini promised a change when he took office following the Italy lowest point of the national team, after failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. And he delivered.
While history will remember him as the coach who led Italy to the European Championship 2020 (June 11, 2021, but that’s another story), his contribution is much more important. He turned a country’s approach to its national team – one of the few institutions that all Italians share, from north to south, outside of the Catholic Church, family and pasta – into something that few thought it could be: something fun, something brave, something proactive, based on wanting the ball and taking risks with it. When you’ve had full-scale success – four World Cups and, now, two euros – it’s the proverbial supertanker U-turn.
That would have been true regardless of the outcome of the penalty shootout at Wembley. Penalty kicks may not be the lottery that the cliché says they are, but neither are they football. It’s a completely different competition. One that requires technical ability, courage, mental toughness and maybe a little bit of madness too, but that’s not football.
And the judgment of Mancini – and, for that matter, his counterpart Gareth Southgate – doesn’t and shouldn’t change depending on who wins a shootout.
But, yeah, when you get that far and bring the mug home, it’s a lot sweeter. Especially when you can walk into your opponent’s house and take it from them, after losing a goal, with your fans five on one and without one of your best players in the tournament (OK, so Leonardo of Spinazzola was there, limping on his crutches, but he was not playing).
Oh, and let’s remember who was there during most of the overtime. You had an almost relegated center-forward Turin (Andrea Belotti), two tiny guys Sassuolo (Manuel Locatelli and Domenico Berardi), Chelsea’s third choice left-back (Emerson) and Juventus third winger (Federico bernardeschi). Meanwhile, up to two minutes of full time, people like Jadon Sancho and Marcus Rashford watched from the sidelines … but that’s a different story and Gareth Southgate can explain it in due course.
The shots on goal may have determined who would win the trophy, but how the previous 120 minutes had gone determined who coached whom. And Mancini won that one hands down.
England set up more conservatively than usual, with an additional lateral rear, Kieran Trippier, transforming the 4-2-3-1 from previous outings into 3-4-2-1. England’s goal after just two minutes played into Southgate’s hands and made an already difficult task even more difficult for Mancini. It settled down nicely for England to sit down deep and hit the counterattack with the fast Rahim sterling. It also allowed England’s top three to effectively support the Italian midfield trio, the team’s creative engine. Throw in an inspired Harry kane and there was a real feeling that England could strengthen their lead, especially as Italy looked in tatters and struggled to find space, other than the occasional Lorenzo Insigne free kick and odd stroke of the blister Federico chiesa.
Except that England did not bring back their advantage. Instead, they drove further and further toward their own goal, perhaps hoping that a counterattack would materialize out of the aether. Mancini’s possession play, although he didn’t blunt England’s de facto seven line (five defenders plus two starting midfielders) at least knocked it out of the game and led them to at the break.
“This early goal that we gave up hit us hard,” said Mancini. “But we had the strength to come back into the game and, I think, deserved to win.”
He pulled the trigger just before the hour. Let’s go Ciro Immobile (still fighting a losing battle) and Nicolo Barella, came Berardi and Bryan Cristante. Insigne took a central position – call it “false nine” if you will, even if it was more like “true ten” – and Chiesa and Berardi became the de facto attackers, cutting off large areas.
Insigne began to find space where there was none before. Jordan pickford had to make two difficult saves in quick succession, the first on a close range shot from Insignia, the second on the effervescent Chiesa. Then came the goal, with Leonard Bonucci popping up to push him home after Pickford deflected Cristante’s header off the post. Disjointed? Maybe, but it was coming. A few minutes later, a precise ball over the summit found Berardi, whose volley contact wasn’t soft enough – otherwise it would have been a tournament contender’s goal.
The 90 minutes ended with a reminder that, despite all the smiles and positivity, there is still that little wicked side lurking in Giorgio Chiellini’s heart: when Bukayo Saka Spun him through the sideline, he resorted to an old-fashioned yank to stop the counter. Saka is young enough to be Chielini’s son; Maybe that’s why the Italian captain looked at him with the kind of look that said, “Sorry kid, it hurts more than it hurts you.”
But there’s more to Chiellini than that: In the first overtime he was nothing short of phenomenal smothering a Raheem Sterling meter, his 36-year-old body a model of efficiency, if not rock-solid speed. Chiellini celebrated the way Joel Embiid could after rejecting a shot. Sterling smiled and nodded as he walked up the field – although he enjoyed the tackle. Chiellini would make another similar stop, part experience, part witchcraft, on Sterling, England’s last man standing, in the second half of extra time.
Then came the penalties, with their cruel changes of momentum. Belotti seeing his saved (advantage, England); then Rashford dribbles his offside (deuce); Gianluigi Donnarumma savings of Jadon Sancho (Italy advantage); Jorginho see his shot hit the post, bounce off Pickford then nestle in the keeper’s arms (deuce); then Donnarumma’s oversized frame suffocating Saka for the win.
Mancini’s men have played some of the best football in the Euro. Not only that, with the exception of the stretches of the Spain match, his team dominated the opposition in every game. The final told its own story: Italy had 62% possession, dominated the opposition 20-6 and limited England to just one shot on target – Luke Shaw’s goal.
He did so by taking a handbrake ride away from Italian football history. He did it without having the most gifted team in the Euro. He did it with x’s and o’s, but also with a lot of psychology and charisma. And his Italian team are now unbeaten in 34 matches, one short of the record held by Spain.
“What made us special? Our belief and the relationships we have developed with each other,” Bonucci said. “We’ve been together for 50 days now and we still aren’t tired of each other. Even when we had some free time and got to see our families, we still spent time together. My wife pointed it out and asked me why the players were all together even when the families were there. We never got bored of each other. Normally when you’re away that long you want to come home. But we never felt like this. We wanted to go over there, to be together until the end. Until now. “
Now it’s over. Now they can go home. And they can take the cup with them.
Bonucci was asked if he really shouted “It’s coming to Rome” into the cameras, a nod to the ubiquitous English favorite “Football’s coming home” song.
“Absolutely, yes,” he exclaimed. “We’ve been hearing this since Wednesday night, when they beat Denmark to reach the final. Sorry for them, but it’s going elsewhere. It’s getting on a big plane and going to Rome. We believed in it, we deserved it and now it’s right that we celebrate. “