For a match that lacked scoring and even legitimate clear-cut attempts on goal, the Euro 2020 finale was as epic, as anxious, and as nerve-wracking as we suspected all along. With seventy-some-odd thousand fans in the stands, and hundreds more storming the gates prior to kick-off, Wembley Stadium was an absolute madhouse as Italy and England battled for European football supremacy.
And fans of the Three Lions, whether they paid for entry or not, didn't have to wait long to jump out of their seats. In only the second minute of the match, Manchester United left-back Luke Shaw caught Italy napping at the far post to give England an early lead after narrowly slotting the ball on the inside of the left-hand post.
WHAT A START FOR ENGLAND!!!— ESPN (@espn) July 11, 2021
LUKE SHAW SCORES IN THE 2ND MINUTE pic.twitter.com/yJVrDqLs6E
However, as the ESPN commentators and too many pundits to count were quick to point out, that goal may have ultimately been England's undoing. Content with their early lead, England's pressing soon gave way to a more passive approach as Gareth Southgate preferred to lean on his five-man backline rather than hunt for a second goal.
Still, despite their reactive tactics, England of the better of Italy in the first half. Down a goal and unable to move the ball with their usual alacrity, the Azzurri were noticeably rattled by England's defensive posture and went into the locker room at halftime dispirited and desperate for answers.
Fortunately for Italy, Roberto Mancini was up to the task and made a crucial tactical tweak just shy of the hour mark. With Ciro Immobile struggling to make an imprint on the match, Mancini swapped out the Lazio striker for Sassuolo winger Domenico Berardi, effectively changing Italy's attacking shape and approach, swapping out a standard 4-3-3 for a false-nine(ish) look with Insigne playing the role that Francesco Totti made famous a decade ago.
Rather than waiting for Immobile to synch up with Lorenzo Insigne or Marco Verratti, Italy now had three mobile forwards capable of swapping positions and keeping England's back-line off-kilter. With Berardi, Insigne, and Federico Chiesa running wild through the final third, Italy rediscovered the punch they were missing in the first half.
Despite the change in approach, Italy's equalizer actually came from the rearguard when Leonardo Bonucci found himself in the right place at the right time.
Leonardo Bonucci: 67th Minute (Italy 1, England 1)
With an inswinging corner kick flying towards the near post, Roma's Bryan Cristante put a beautiful flick on the ball, redirecting it towards the middle of the area where Marco Verratti's headed attempt nearly scored itself—hitting part of Jordan Pickford's hand before caroming off the post—before Bonucci seized on the rebound to level the match.
The ensuing 23 minutes of regular time and the 30 minutes of added extra time may have been a bit light on scoring chances but there was no shortage of anxiety and intrigue as the crowd at Wembley tried their best to inspire the Three Lions while Italy continued to dominate possession, win 50/50 balls, and pepper Pickford's goal with shot after shot.
Despite Mancini’s masterstroke, Italy wasn't able to find a breakthrough in the final third, and with England abandoning any sense of attacking football, this match was destined to go to penalties.
After Berardi and Harry Kane found the back of the net in the first round, Andrea Belotti's attempt was turned away by Pickford, who read the Torino striker's approach perfectly. Harry Maguire followed that up with a beautiful strike of his own, giving England a 2-1 advantage after two rounds.
Bonucci pulled one back for Italy, who then caught a lucky break when Marcus Rashford's attempt clanged off the left post. Federico Bernardeschi put Italy back on top with a no-nonsense attempt of his own, but then it was Donnarumma's time to shine.
PSG's latest multi-million dollar purchase made a crucial save on Jadon Sancho, giving Italy a chance to win the title in the fifth round of penalties if their semi-final savior Jorginho could repeat the feat at Wembley. However, rather than changing his PK approach, the crow hop that worked so well against Spain let Jorginho down this time, as Pickford quickly got his mitts on the ball.
And so it all came down to one final kick of the ball. With 19-year-old Bukayo Saka stepping up to the line with the weight of a nation and 55 years of frustration bearing down on his shoulders, the Arsenal midfielder was no match for Donnarumma, who greeted the occasion with all the excitement of a dental cleaning.
It was a tense match and while winning on penalties always feels a bit grimy, thanks to Mancini's second-half alterations and Donnarumma's penalty heroics, Italy claimed their first European Championship since 1968.
Dov’è la Vittoria?...in Rome, baby!