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For Gareth Southgate, it had to be penalties. The England manager’s personal story has been shaped by his decisive shootout miss against Germany back in 1996 at this stadium in the semi-finals of this competition. Now, after 120 nerve-shredding minutes of England men’s first major final since the 1966 World Cup victory, when initial control gave way to a fraught struggle, it once again boiled to the ultimate test of nerve.
Southgate and his players have torn down so many psychological barriers over the past three years, reconnecting the team with the nation, beginning with the surge into the semi-finals of the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Back then, there was the victory in a shootout against Colombia in the last 16 – only England’s second such success in eight major tournament attempts; a major step forward.Here at Euro 2020, there have been the knockout victories over Germany, Ukraine and Denmark – a thrilling odyssey and a bucking of a historical trend. Previously, England had won only one knockout tie in this tournament; against Spain on penalties in 1996. But when it came down to it, when sporting immortality had beckoned in the shape of only England’s second ever major trophy, they would come up agonisingly short.
Southgate could see that penalties were coming during the closing stages of extra time, when tired minds and bodies were the dominant theme, and he sent on Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho in anticipation of them; the former playing as an emergency right-back as England defended a last-gasp corner, which felt risky.
Both would end up as the fall guys. With Jordan Pickford having sprung low to save Italy’s second kick, taken by the substitute Andrea Belotti, Rashford stepped forward in round three with the chance to make the scoreline 3-2. He stuttered, waiting for the goalkeeper, Gianluigi Donnarumma, to dive and then rolled his kick against the outside of the opposite post.
The momentum swung decisively in Italy’s favour. After another substitute, Federico Bernardeschi, had scored, Sancho saw Donnarumma go the right way to save from him. Enter Jorginho to win it and yet Pickford would turn his kick on to the post. England had hope. And then they had nothing when Bukayo Saka, who had also come off the bench, was denied by Donnarumma. It was quite the call by Southgate to entrust the fifth kick to a 19-year-old.
In the end, it would be a depressingly familiar hard luck story for England because, make no mistake, they had held the key to glory in their hands. Southgate’s team had enjoyed early elation when Luke Shaw scored his first international goal, a magnificent half-volley with the game’s first move. England had been comfortable in the first half of normal time, holding Italy largely at arm’s length, Southgate’s tactics, which featured a reversion to a wing-back system, looking well judged.But the game slid away from them in the second half, Italy turning up the temperature, stepping higher, pinning England back. There were long spells when Southgate’s players could not get out. The approach felt wrong, Southgate powerless to stem the tide.
It was fraught and the similarities to the 2018 World Cup semi-final defeat against Croatia were clear, England sitting deeper and coming to lack inspiration. Italy got the equaliser that they deserved in the second-half through Leonardo Bonucci and England were clinging on, at times, for the extra 30 minutes. It came to feel like a slow and inexorable trudge towards defeat.
For Italy, it was a second European Championship and glory for Roberto Mancini, whose work since taking over as the manager from Gian Piero Ventura after the failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup has been little short of sensational. Italy had the know-how; they have almost forgotten what defeat is. They are unbeaten in 34 matches, a run that spans nearly three years.For England, it was a tale of regret, and for all of the progress to this point, the feel-good factor, the rallying of the nation behind a likable team, the result was always going to be the only thing that mattered. Southgate had even said so himself on Friday.
Shaw had ignited the dream start, driving forward after a moment of quick-footed skill, feeding Harry Kane and continuing his run. The ball was worked to Kieran Trippier and, when he crossed, Shaw crashed home on the half-volley. It was a difficult skill to execute, with the ball coming across his body and yet he made it look gloriously simple.
England were excellent for the opening 20 minutes and, even though Italy stabilised, coming to hog the ball, with Lorenzo Insigne flickering off the left, Southgate’s team kept them mainly in front of them in the first half. Federico Chiesa went close and Ciro Immobile had a shot blocked but that was it from Italy before the interval.How things would change and the frustration for England was how little they created after the tide turned. Insigne blew a free-kick, Chiesa extended Pickford and Italy’s equaliser had been signposted. It came when a corner broke for Marco Verratti and he saw a header turned on to the post by Pickford. Bonucci muscled in to convert the rebound.
Southgate swapped Trippier for Saka and switched from 3-4-3 to 4-3-3. Jordan Henderson also replaced Declan Rice. And yet Italy had the belief by now, they had the momentum and they would make their superiority count at the bitter end. Nobody could say that they did not deserve it.