Heartbreak, football’s gone to Rome again

An England team which spent Euro 2020 clearing major hurdles ultimately fell down at the last.

To 1990, 1996, 2004, 2006 and 2012 can now be added 2021. Another gut-wrenching penalty shoot-out defeat.

This one, coming in a final, with the trophy so close, will sting more than any before.

After Jordan Pickford had denied Andrea Belotti, England had the advantage until Marcus Rashford hit the post.

When Gianluigi Donnarumma then saved from Jadon Sancho, Italy were on the brink and though Pickford kept hopes alive for just a little longer when he brilliantly denied Jorginho, Bukayo Saka saw his penalty repelled to finally extinguish the dream.

Saka has been among the stars of this summer but the fact responsibility for such a crucial kick was placed on a 19-year-old, when the more experienced Jack Grealish and Raheem Sterling were unused options, was perhaps open to question.

Rashford and Sancho had also been brought on in the dying seconds of extra-time purely for the shoot-out on a night when Gareth Southgate, who had barely put a foot wrong through the first six matches of the tournament, finally mis-stepped.

It all started so well. Southgate’s decision to tinker with his team for the 37th straight match bore instant dividends as Luke Shaw fired home the fastest goal ever in a European Championship’s final.

But after an opening half-hour when they were chasing shadows, Italy began to take command and their equaliser from Leonardo Bonucci midway through the second half was deserved.

Southgate’s achievements in the past month and across his whole reign are worthy of huge praise. This tournament was another big step forward for an England team which remains young and has room to grow.

But this final bore some familiar hallmarks with the 2018 World Cup semi-final defeat to Croatia, as the Three Lions failed to build on taking an early lead and by the end had been mostly second best. The difference here was Italy were unable to find the winner in extra-time.

Painful as defeats on penalties will always be, Roberto Mancini’s were worthy champions. After Shaw joined Martin Peters and Geoff Hurst on the list of Englishmen to score in a major tournament final when he volleyed home in the second minute, England registered just one more shot on target. They had less than a third of possession.

Italy players celebrate winning the penalty shoot-out after the UEFA Euro 2020 Final

Southgate’s decisions during the course of the match will be picked over in the coming days, not least by himself.

The bigger picture, of course, remains overwhelmingly positive. Having beaten a major nation in a knockout game and reached their first major final in more than half a century, Euro 2020 has been a huge success, England announcing themselves as a major player again on the world stage. The World Cup is just 16 months away. England will go there as serious contenders.

But having come so close to glory this time around, the instant reaction is to ponder what might have been.

While many England supporters have spent the past fortnight in a state of disbelief, the progress of their team has been no fluke.

Instead they are the result of several years of good work, driven by the FA, that much-criticised governing body who finally got its act together and has, eventually, delivered a situation where young English players are currently considered the best in the world.

Key moments included the opening, in 2012, of St George’s Park, the training base where Southgate’s England have spent this tournament.

Even the massive sums spent on rebuilding Wembley don’t seem too bad now. The stadium might have its critics but Uefa are certainly not among them. England have unquestionably benefited from its extensive use in this tournament.

Opened in 2007, until a month ago you would have said it was a stadium with few great memories. But not now.

Certainly, it has not witnessed an atmosphere quite like that which preceded kick-off.

Concerns the occasion might get to the players heightened when Harry Maguire conceded a needless corner after just 60 seconds. Yet within a minute the stadium had erupted as Kieran Trippier crossed from the right and Shaw arrived, driving a left-footed shot in off the near post.

Up in the stands, David Beckham bumped fists with Tom Cruise. Suddenly, this felt very much like Mission Possible for England.

England goalkeeper Jordan Pickford stands dejected with Raheem Sterling (right)

Watching from the touchline, however, Southgate clenched his fist but otherwise barely flinched amid the pandemonium, conscious the night had only just begun.

Still, it was all England and all coming down the right, Harry Kane picking out Trippier with a smart through ball, Giorgio Chiellini diving in to stop the cross reaching Sterling six yards out.

For the first time in the tournament Italy were behind and the experience appeared an uncomfortable one. England looked a team in complete control.

There was a sense Italy were beginning to turn the tide as half-time approached. Jorginho and Marco Verratti began to see more of the ball, while Federico Chiesa saw a shot blocked. Yet anytime a player in a blue shirt turned in midfield, there was Kalvin Phillips to challenge or, if not him, Declan Rice.

Sterling was also doing his share of tracking back but when bundled into Insigne on the edge of the box early in the second half, Italy sniffed a route back. Lorenzo Insigne pushed the free-kick a couple of yards wide and Wembley breathed again.

For all England were playing well, it was Italy now dominating possession but there was no way past the white wall. When Insigne looked like he might barge his way through, Pickford stuck up a glove to bat the ball away.

Just past the hour mark the goalkeeper denied Chiesa, diving to his left and there was no doubt which team was on top. Bonucci’s equaliser, when it arrived on 67 minutes, was deserved.

When Domenico Berardi volleyed over, England were on the rack like never before in the past month, Maguire summing up the desperation as he shanked a clearance out of play.

A switch to four at the back and the introduction of an outlet in Bukayo Saka eased the pressure, just a little. It was still Italy looking the more likely in extra-time, however. Bernardeschi flung himself at a cross but could not connect.

Finally, England began to rediscover some rhythm. Sterling almost got around the back of Chiellini but the veteran stuck out a leg and deflected the ball away.

When Pickford saved Berardi’s spot-kick England were dreaming again but when Rashford hit the post and Donnarumma saved from Sancho, Italy were in command.

Still there was another twist as Pickford denied Jorginho but Saka could find no way past Donnarumma.

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