The curtain closes on a mesmerizing summer of Euro 2020 football this Sunday, as supporters arrive at Wembley Stadium en masse to witness Italy and England do battle for the continental championship trophy.
Roberto Mancini’s side booked their place in the showpiece event after coming up trumps in nerve-wracking penalty shootout against Spain, while England needed 120 minutes of their own to send Denmark packing 2-1 in the semi-finals.
It has been 53 years since Italy got their hands on the trophy, while the Three Lions are playing in their first major tournament final for 55 years as Gareth Southgate endeavours to write his own chapter of history.
Preview: Italy vs. England – prediction, team news, lineups
During Manchester City’s infamous Premier League title win of 2012, Robert Mancini was warned by Martin Tyler that he would “never see anything like this ever again”. Win the Euros with Italy, however, and that will surely be a close second.
With the wise old heads in defence, an irrepressible trio of talent in midfield and a fear-inducing attacking trident, Italy may have gone under the radar slightly before the first ball was kicked at Euro 2020, but the continental dominance has been there for all to see since 2018.
Failure to qualify for the World Cup in Russia seems totally incomprehensible given how Mancini’s men have swept aside the competition over the past three years, but not since the days of Dino Zoff and Luigi Riva have the Azzurri stepped foot onto the turf for a European Championship final and come up trumps.
However, the Italians may just be 90 minutes away from ending that agonising 53-year wait for continental silverware, as after sweeping aside Turkey, Switzerland and Wales in the group stage without shipping a single goal, Mancini’s men did the business in three gruelling knockout encounters.
Even though Austria’s Sasa Kalajdzic broke the Italians’ unfathomable defensive resilience in the last-16 stage, Italy pulled through by two goals to one before dumping out the world’s number-one ranked nation in Belgium by the same scoreline to set up a Wembley outing with Luis Enrique’s Spain side in the final four.
A sweeping counter-attack ultimately ended with Federico Chiesa finding the far corner past a stranded Unai Simon before Alvaro Morata linked up expertly with Dani Olmo to fire in the equaliser for La Roja, but the Juventus forward would soon go from hero to zero in front of several of his Bianconeri teammates in blue.
The demons of 1996 have been banished, the chants of Sweet Caroline and Three Lions are being belted out at full volume, and England are in the Euro 2020 final. Following 18 months of coronavirus chaos which has led to devastating consequences on and off the pitch, the nation will come together to witness Gareth Southgate lead his history-making hopefuls out in the English capital ahead of their biggest game in 55 years.
Amid reports speculating that a full arena of spectators could be welcomed to Wembley to watch England play in a major tournament final for the first time since the turn of the millennium, Southgate – who could supposedly become Sir Gareth if his endeavours are successful – is reaping the rewards of taking on one of the most scrutinised and unforgiving jobs in the international footballing landscape.
Fans may be wondering whether bowing out at Euro 2016 to minnows Iceland was simply just a bad dream, as under Southgate’s tutelage, England may not have dazzled and delighted on the attacking front, but his often impenetrable rearguard navigated five European Championship games without conceding a goal.
However, any hopes of making history with a sixth clean sheet were quickly wiped out against Denmark – an inspired nation being roared on by the neutrals – as Mikkel Damsgaard’s unstoppable free kick silenced the England contingent while those in red made their presence known.
Only nine minutes after conceding their first goal at the tournament, England’s usual suspects were up to their old tricks one more. Harry Kane – creator and goalscorer – fed a delightful ball through to teenage sensation Bukayo Saka, whose pass was intended for Raheem Sterling but instead deflected into the back of the net off Denmark captain Simon Kjaer.
The Danes did not let their heads drop as Kasper Schmeichel produced a performance his father would have been immensely proud of, but with 104 minutes on the clock, Sterling controversially went down in the area and Kane tapped home at the second attempt after seeing a surprisingly tame spot kick saved.
When Danny Makkelie’s full-time whistle blew, scenes of unbridled jubilation followed for England, who had previously tried and failed to reach the final in nine European Championship campaigns. However, the last two nations to host the final – Portugal in 2004 and France in 2016 – both ended up on the losing side.
Italy’s jaw-dropping unbeaten run may make the headlines, but England can at least boast 11 wins and one draw from their last 12 games in all competitions, and 15 of the Three Lions’ last 17 encounters at Wembley Stadium have seen them march to victory.
Only a handful of the 1966 heroes are still around to watch the current England crop try to emulate their success, but Southgate’s men – whether Sunday ends in joy or despair – will hope to have inspired the next generation of world-beaters to pick up that football, lace up their boots and follow in the footsteps of Kane and co.
As two heavyweight European forces prepare to collide in front of fans, former players and royalty, nations across the continent will undoubtedly smile back on a tournament like none other following a year like none other, and one can only hope that restrictions, quarantines and behind-closed-doors encounters will be distant memories by Qatar 2022.
Italy European Championship form:
England European Championship form: