What’s another year of hurt? As England’s players fell to their knees at the conclusion of a heartbreaking night and Italy’s raced away to celebrate with their penalty shootout hero, the goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma, a familiar feeling of despair returned.
That the final saved penalty kick came from young Arsenal star Bukayo Saka merely added to the pain. It was cruel, it was gut-wrenching, it was the worst possible way to lose. Arguments can be made over whether Saka, 19 years old, was the right man to deploy in such a pressured situation. Questions will no doubt be asked of the double substitution in the final minute of extra time to bring on Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho to take spot kicks only to both miss.
But when the dust settles and more level-headed retrospections can take place this must still be considered a successful tournament for Gareth Southgate’s team, where significant strides have been made for a nation that is finally living up to the lofty impression many supporters have bestowed on them through decades of underperformance.
Was this their best chance of a trophy? Who knows right now as they lick their wounds. They can reflect on where tonight went wrong, whether the formation change that worked so well early on ended up being a problem, but the big picture undeniably remains a positive one.
England deserve their billing as one of the world’s best teams. The regularity with which they are competing in the latter stages, this finale coming off the back of World Cup and Nations League semi-finals, cannot be underplayed. Reaching a second final in the country’s history is an undeniable improvement for a squad, the second youngest of the 24 in this tournament, built around players who should remain ascendant for a few years yet.
This European Championship has provided a famous win over Germany, one of their most comfortable ever tournament triumphs against Ukraine and, against Denmark on Wednesday, a night that will forever live in the memories of those privileged enough to be in attendance. Concentrating on the wider picture or focusing on the future will do little to alleviate the immediate feeling of such crushing disappointment, though.
On a raucous Wembley night, when several hundred ticketless supporters broke through security amid scenes of chaos and violence, England had enjoyed the perfect start with Luke Shaw scoring his first international goal inside three minutes.
Yet Italy soon monopolised possession and there was an air of inevitability about an equaliser well before Leonardo Bonucci bundled home in the 67th minute following some ping pong from a corner. England withstood more pressure and retrieved a minor sense of control during an additional 30 minutes in which the pace of the game dramatically slowed to bring the match to an agonisingly tense shootout in which both goalkeepers were the standouts.
Kicking into the England end, Domenico Berardi scored Italy’s first before Harry Kane replied. Then Jordan Pickford got down outstandingly well to his right to deny Andrea Belotti. Harry Maguire temporarily seized the advantage by sending his effort into the roof of the net.
But Bonucci calmly dispatched his before Marcus Rashford, who had barely featured all tournament and came on in the 120th minute solely to take a penalty, took a stuttering run up and sent Donnarumma the wrong way only to drag his attempt just wide.
Federico Bernadeschi made it 3-2 with Italy’s fourth attempt and Jadon Sancho, also a late sub, then saw his strike palmed away by Donnarumma. Chelsea’s Jorginho, lucky to be still on the pitch following a nasty tackle on Jack Grealish, strolled up nervelessly with an attempt to seal the deal with his usual hop, skip and nonchalant finish but Pickford somehow kept it out. But all that drama mattered little as Donnarumma again saved to deny Saka, the youngest player on the pitch.
Considering the emotional toll the evening took on everyone inside the arena, the analysis of England’s team news feels like something of a blur now. To the dwindling number who doubt Southgate’s tactical nous, a back three and midfield featuring two No6s flanked by wing backs whose club football is predominantly played in a four-man defence may have seemed overly conservative. Yet the decision to change the system, for the second time all tournament, and bring Kieran Trippier in for Saka appeared instantly justified – if not by the end.
It was simply a fine team goal, beginning with Harry Maguire clearing a corner from Italy’s right. Shaw then passed to Harry Kane in a central area and the captain’s creative ability immediately came to the fore with a slick pass to find Trippier. He zipped forward with yards of space in front of him as Italy struggled to retreat. Kyle Walker pushed on as an overlap option but instead Trippier delivered a deep cross that initially looked like it would be too firmly struck for everyone. Apart from Luke Shaw that is as the opposite wing back arrived to finish first time. What a way to score your first international goal.
Wembley’s roof threatened to take off such was the noise that greeted the net bulging. Italy appeared shell-shocked, overwhelmed by their environment, and Kane sought to repeat his ploy with just over ten minutes in when dropping into midfield and again feeding Trippier. This time the cross was put out for a corner by Giovanni Di Lorenzo. Itside from a Mason Mount run that ended with him unsuccessfully trying to find Sterling.
Italy were never going to be frozen for long and they enjoyed long spells of possession as the opening period progressed, ensuring that the tension crept another level still. It was not beautiful and the need to soak up such pressure merely added to the nerves. But England looked comfortable in their shape.
On the eve of the game there was an expectation that England would set Mason Mount on Jorginho but the change of shape instead meant it was Kane who often closed the Chelsea player down while Kalvin Phillips and Declan Rice sought to silence Marco Verratti and Nicolo Barella.
At one point Italy had two-thirds of the ball, yet the first moment of concern from England’s point of view did not arrive until the 35th minute when Federico Chiesa, who has enjoyed a fine tournament, flashed low and wide from outside the penalty area. In added time Marco Verratti sent a low and tame attempt straight at Jordan Pickford to record Italy’s first attempt on target before the country, briefly, drew breath.
A similar pattern was established upon the restart and, after Sterling had a penalty appeal waved off, there was another massive sigh of relief when Lorenzo Insigne sent a threatening free kick high and wide. Italy’s dominance soon became relentless, though, and it did not take a seasoned observer to realise that England inviting such pressure would eventually prove costly.
As the pressure built, Chiesa forced Pickford into a fine stop low to his left with a skimming attempt that was heading for the bottom corner. In response England fashioned a pair of corners, the first leading to the other as John Stones rose near the penalty spot and had an attempt deflected over. But it was barely respite and Italy went right up the other end and equalised from a corner of their own.
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Maguire had gotten a vital touch to divert a cross from the left over with Chiesa lurking menacingly behind. Domenico Berardi’s delivery ping-ponged through the box until Verratti got in front of Mount to head goalwards, Pickford scrambled and Bonucci was on hand to bundle in.
In search of a second wind or simply a semblance of control, Southgate brought on Bukayo Saka and Jordan Henderson, for Trippier and Rice, and after a lengthy spell of treatment for Chiesa England regrouped. But there was a feeling of inevitability about the additional half hour and soon similar regarding penalties.
Jack Grealish’s introduction for Mount in the 99th minute brought the loudest roars since Shaw’s goal and the Aston Villa player had a shot blocked in the second extra period, while Jorginho was desperately lucky to get away with only a booking for fouling him. But the minutes ticked by and the shootout followed., Rashford and Sancho introduced with the clear intention of taking one each.