IT was almost home

Aims special report

EURO 2020 Football was almost home. With 23 minutes to go in normal time, it was almost home. In extra-time as Raheem Sterling appeared set to wriggle through on goal only to be halted by the wall that is Giorgio Chiellini, it was almost home. In the penalty shoot-out when Jordan Pickford saved from Andrea Belotti, it was almost home. And then it was gone. It was taken away. No-one should begrudge Italy their victory, their crown in winning the European hampionships. But this felt desperately tough on England given their campaign; on their young team and on 19-year-old Bukayo Saka who had the guts to take but, unfortunately, missed the fateful spot-kick, and on Gareth Southgate.
Why did it have to be penalties again for Southgate? Just why? After Euro 96 and after exorcising that demon? After no more semi-final failures? After overcoming so many mental blocks and barriers? After banishing fears and hoodoos and years of pain? Instead it is 55 years of hurt without winning a major trophy which will roll over to 56 with next year’s World Cup in Qatar where after a semi-final loss in 2018 and a defeat in the final here England must have the resolve to go that one step further. They are so close now, they have brought back belief and hope and pride and that cannot be overshadowed. That cannot and must not be lost even if this glorious opportunity slipped away at the last.
Mistakes were made. Unfortunately and undoubtedly that was true. As against Croatia in that semi-final three years ago England scored early, scored the quickest goal every scored in a European Championship Final, but ceded control and were eventually pushed back and overpowered as Italy claimed a deserved equalising goal.
Extra-time turned chaotic. England made changes, Italy was tiring but Southgate appeared to be pre-occupied by the prospect of penalties. He brought on Marcus Rashford – who briefly played right-back – and Jadon Sancho in the 120th minute but, sadly, both missed in the penalty shoot-out as England failed with the final three of their kicks. Questions will be asked why Saka, so courageous but so inexperienced, was taking the fifth one. Given all the work England have done in this area, this brittle weakness before Southgate took over, it was confusing as was his reluctance to change his shape and personnel after Italy wrestled back the advantage. Having emphatically won the first half, catching Italy out with a three-man backline and wing-backs, Southgate was out-manoeuvred by Roberto Mancini in the second. The boys of 66 remain on their own. The boys of 21 – and some such as Saka and Sancho are no older than that number – were so close to joining them and must go again. They are getting closer and closer. Now is not the time to stop believing.

Given all we have been through, given that Italy was at the epicentre of the coronavirus pandemic and paid such a heavy price and given how bravely they themselves have played then they are undoubtedly worthy winners. For such a feted football nation, with four World Cup wins, this was only the second time they had won the European Championships and the first since 1968. It has come to Rome.

And yet it felt so different when England took the lead through Luke Shaw and his recovery – having almost lost a right leg six years ago, having been nowhere near this team at the start of the season – seemed symbolic of the rebirth under Southgate. But it was simply not to be. It was messy and at times ugly outside and inside the stadium, there was no getting away from it, no matter how we want to laud and enjoy the occasion, with fans standing in stairways, vomitories and even in the disabled areas. Some clearly had tickets but their seats had been occupied. Some clearly did not. But it was pandemonium in a more joyous sense inside two minutes as England broke through a superb, sweeping move started and ended by Shaw after they broke from defending a corner with the wing-back switching the ball infield to Harry Kane who had the vision to quickly sweep it wide to England’s other wing-back Kieran Trippier. The Italian defenders stood off and Trippier picked out Shaw across the penalty area who half-volleyed powerfully into the turf with the ball skidding up sharply, kissing Gianluigi Donnarumma’s near post and flying into the net. Southgate calmly punched the air while, surreally, David Beckham and Tom Cruise fist-bumped in the Royal Box.
It was Shaw’s first goal for England and his celebration was as raw as the crowd reaction. And to think Harry Maguire had nervously conceded the corner in the first place with a miscued back pass to Pickford. Italy was struggling and could not cope after Southgate sprung a surprise by re-instating the 3-4-3 and, for the 37th time in row, picked a different team. It was the best half hour England had played in this tournament with Declan Rice – who ran his heart out – dominant and Mancini looking shocked.

Finally, though, Italy began to slowly turn the screw as they gained momentum through keeping the ball and, especially, through Marco Verratti while Federico Chiesa served warning of what was to come when he drove a low shot just past the post from 20 yards. It would be Chiesa, direct and threatening, who would go on to be England’s tormentor. As the rain continued to fall the pace did not relent. And neither did the commitment. It was edgy, it was raucous, it was committed, it was untidy. It felt like anything could happen. It felt just like what a final should be. Italy was out early for the second-half. That said it all and the initiative was theirs. Wave after wave forced England back with Pickford screaming at his defenders to push up as they dropped to the edge of their own area. This was starting to have an ominously familiar feel; what Southgate’s assistant Steve Holland has referred to as the “slow death”. And England were eventually skewered.
By now there was also an inevitability of extra-time and, sadly, there was an inevitability of a penalty shoot-out although maybe Jorginho was fortunate not to be sent off for a lunge at substitute Jack Grealish. Southgate tried to effect things; tried to stave that off but even though England took the lead in the shoot-out and even when Pickford saved from Jorginho, who is usually so deadly, as well they could not do it. Not this time. Football was almost home.

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