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Italy win Euro 2020; what a comeback story

They weren’t considered among the favourites going into the tournament. And given their failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, is it any wonder? But as Italy win Euro 2020, the ultimate football comeback is complete. From despair to redemption within 4 years.

Cast your mind back to November 2017. Italy’s then-coach Giampiero Ventura stumbled to 2nd place in their World Cup qualifying group. A 3-0 hammering to group winners Spain and a shock 1-1 draw at home to Macedonia were the low points of an unconvincing campaign, meaning a play-off beckoned.

And that’s when the Azzurri hit rock bottom. Under the San Siro lights, Sweden sealed a 1-0 aggregate win to seal their place at the World Cup at Italy’s expense. Not qualifying was unthinkable and unacceptable. The image of a crying Gianluigi Buffon was the symbol of one of the lowest points in Azzurri history.

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A big reset, and a fresh approach

When Gianluigi Donnarumma saved Bukayo Saka’s penalty to win Euro 2020, the turnaround in fortunes for Italy could not have been starker. In many ways, Donnarumma’s emergence not just as the matchwinner, but the overall player of the tournament represents the new Azzurri.

As Buffon retired in tears, Donnarumma stepped in with heroics. Roberto Mancini’s new European Champions were comfortably the best team of Euro 2020. England deserved their place in the Final, but they were 2nd best on a night that belonged to Italy. Despite the “football’s coming home” narrative.

Mancini’s wholesale changes

When Mancini stepped in to pick up the pieces of the catastrophic Ventura era, he wasn’t afraid to make changes. In fact, the nation demanded it.

Mancini has used 67 different players in his tenure so far, handing debuts to 35. As Buffon, Barzagli and De Rossi exited the scene, in came Nicolo Barella, Manuel Locatelli and Matteo Pessina among many others.

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His Italy side came into Euro 2020 on an unbeaten run stretching back to 2018. The side he has built is streetwise, fluid in attack and solid at the back. And as England discovered, extremely difficult to beat. The fact that they were considered outsiders for the Euros will only have helped their focus on continuing this incredible run.

They started the tournament impressively, and the momentum only grew from there. Whatever setbacks appeared, they overcame them masterfully.

In front of Donnarumma, the experienced Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci became an impenetrable barrier. In the middle of the pitch, talisman Marco Verratti’s absence was offset by the excellent Jorginho, Locatelli, and Nicolo Barella.

And in attack, the fluidity offered by Federico Chiesa and Lorenzo Insigne was such a handful for anyone they faced.

Worthy winners in the face of England’s challenge

On the other side of the draw, England were playing out their own similar battle with history. With 55 years since their last success, the Three Lions have been starved of any cheer for such a long time.

After overcoming their own low point exiting Euro 2016 to Iceland, Gareth Southgate had restored some pride by reaching the semi-final of the 2018 World Cup. Their place in the Final against Italy here in Euro 2020, at Wembley, was their own story of redemption and rebirth.

But in Italy, they simply faced a better team. Despite Luke Shaw putting them ahead early on, Italy dominated this Final pretty much from then on.

Tactically Mancini played it perfectly. He kept the faith with a formation and players that have served him so well up to now. England were a very tough test at the end of a grueling season. But against home advantage and overwhelming sentiment, Italy did not waver.

They produced a fantastic all-round display to see off a dogged England challenge.

England’s time will come. But for now, this is Italy’s moment.

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© Mike Barclay at The Football Diary 2020