How football failed to come home as England lose Euro 2020 final shoot-out to Italy

Football was meant to be coming home. As often happens, however, there’s been a diversion.

England forward Marcus Rashford reacts after missing his penalty during the Euro 2020 shoot-out defeat to Italy (Photo by ANDY RAIN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Bloody roadworks, eh? Or, in this case, penalties. The Henry Delaunay trophy has been re-re-routed via Rome.

It might not make it back to England at all.

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Few could fail to have sympathy for England, felled this way yet again, and particularly for teenager Bukayo Saka who saw his fifth penalty saved by Italian 'keeper Gianluigi Donnarumma. This was supposed to be a new England, a different England. But it was the same old heartache, just more pronounced.

Leonardo Bonucci celebrates after scoring Italy's second half equaliser in the Euro 2020 final against England at Wembley. (Photo by PAUL ELLIS/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

This was the final after all. But three consecutive missed penalties saw manager Gareth Southgate play the role of comforter rather than be the one needing to be comforted. His woes at Euro '96 have been evoked often during this tournament as he seemed to edge towards some form of redemption.

He certainly knows just how Saka and also Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho, who also failed to convert their kicks, will feel. He will, though, wonder why they all chose to take slightly stuttered run-ups at such crucial moments. Saka and Sancho saw their kicks saved by Donnarumma, while Rashford hit the post.

Jordan Pickford had already saved England’s bacon when he saved Italy’s fifth penalty, taken by Jorginho. England's only successful converters were the two Harrys, Kane and Maguire.

Oh, this was epic all right. "Match 51" Uefa termed it in their pre-match correspondence with journalists. It might as well have been Area 51. What happened to Italy in the first half is one of life’s many unexplained mysteries. What happened to England in the second half - as well as extra-time - is another.

Luke Shaw celebrates after putting England ahead against Italy in the Euro 2020 final at Wembley. (Photo by ANDY RAIN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Just when England seemed to be edging towards their destiny, Italy grabbed their shirt and dragged them back in.

Giorgio Chiellini was fortunate to get away with this method of dealing with substitute Saka as the Azzurri belatedly deployed all their tricks.

The Italy skipper, 37 in August, was immense next to 34-year-old defensive partner Leonardo Bonucci, scorer of Italy’s equaliser with the clock showing 66 – yes – minutes. Although Jack Grealish gave them some vim in extra-time, England looked a spent force the longer the game went on.

There was a sense of a damn about to break from early on. After 55 years, it seemed England’s wait for another major title would not be prolonged.

One minute and 57 seconds is how long it took England to make a mark but even in that short space of time they had managed to let off a distress signal. Maguire sent the ball straight out for a corner when trying to reach Jordan Pickford with a passback. Wembley rumbled with unease before an explosion of joy moments later. Maguire’s mistake proved a false alarm. Or so it seemed.

It was not the Azzurri’s plan to kick off twice in the opening two minutes but that is what happened. That is how they gave themselves the tallest of tall tasks.

England were ahead after only two minutes. Gareth Southgate seems to prefer using his three at the back formation when up against more formidable opposition and quite right too. It keeps working. England’s opener saw Kieran Trippier cross for Luke Shaw, wingback combining with wingback. The Manchester United player hit the sweet spot with a drilled half-volley that beat Donnarumma at his near post.

Kane facilitated the move with a cross-field pass from deep midfield territory as he reinforced his credentials for being something more than just a goalscorer.

Italy were fouling but in a very un-Italian style.

They were giving free kicks away in a very flagrant way. There was little of their underhand gamesmanship, their deviousness we have come to know and sometimes love.

The last time these two sides had played each other at a major finals was in the middle of the Amazon. That fierce heat and Andrea Pirlo combined to down Roy Hodgson’s side. Neither element was a factor here and how Italy wished they had someone with Pirlo’s artistry to provide some creativity. They were severely lacking in this department although it could also be said that Declan Rice, excellent in the middle of the park, and Leeds United's Kalvin Phillips simply did not give the opposition the chance to play.

Bonucci was reduced to taking a pot shot at goal from around 35 yards as an absorbing first half drew to a close. Other than that, Italy could point to a shot from Frederico Chiesa that zipped past Jordan Pickford’s left-hand post and a tame effort straight at the ‘keeper from Marco Verratti.

They were the patrolmen ensuring everything passed without incident. The police could have done with them outside Wembley in the countdown to kick off.

Southgate emerged to great fanfare at around 6.40pm in a crisp white shirt. Clearly, he had not travelled to the stadium in the tube. Thousands upon thousands of England fans, and some Italian ones too, emerged from Wembley Park station looking like they’d played 120 minutes of football themselves. These sweaty hordes were greeted by a scene of carnage on Wembley Way. Fans had started amassing for the biggest carry out session in history from early morning.

It made for a difficult, slightly hazardous walk form the station to the stadium. One of Wembley’s main arteries was firmly clogged. Likewise, Italy could just not get going once the game started. They were forever heading down blind alleys. Roberto Mancini quickly lost patience and made a double substitution as early as the 54th minute, replacing his plodding centre forward Ciro Immobile with Domenico Berardi, who set up their equaliser, and swapping Nicolo Barella with Bryan Cristante.

It was a masterstroke from Mancini. The change in personnel seemed to shake Italy from their torpor. Bonucci sent Raheem Sterling into next week shortly afterwards and picked up a booking. He then bent down to apologise to the England winger, pleading for forgiveness as Sterling was picking himself back up off the turf. Classic Italy. They were back.

Their equaliser was, however, sourced from a moment that gave the impression of summing up why England were inching towards their destiny. Maguire was in the right place at the right time to head behind for a corner a dangerous cross from the left.

It was a colossal piece of defending, something Chiellini would have been proud to have performed. But all it did was give Italy the corner from which they grabbed an untidy equaliser. Not that any of their fans, particularly those fortunate UK-based Italians housed behind that particular goal, will have cared about the aesthetic qualities of this precious goal.

Varratti’s header from substitute Berardi’s corner was brilliantly blocked low down at his post by Pickford but Bonucci was on hand to turn the loose ball in.

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