For all the differences in style and approach, there is a remarkable symmetry to the journeys taken by England and Italy towards Sunday's Euro 2020 final
For all the differences in style and approach, there is a remarkable symmetry to the journeys taken by England and Italy towards Sunday's Euro 2020 final.
Both nations found themselves at historic low points with fans despairing at their decline and then discovered men who could bring change and quickly lead them on a path to success.
For England, that nadir was elimination from Euro 2016 in the last 16 at the hands of Iceland while Italy's despair came two years later when the four-times world champions failed to even qualify for the World Cup in Russia.
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Gareth Southgate was not the man chosen to lead England's revival. The FA had selected Sam Allardyce for that role but when his reign was cut short by ill-judged comments to a hidden camera, the Under-21 coach was given the job.
Southgate was able to draw on an exciting young generation of talent emerging from the Under-21 team and from the academies of Premier League clubs but his most significant decision was to change the culture around the England team.
He was able to make an England call-up something players looked forward to rather than, as was too often the case in the past, a chore to be feared or avoided.
Southgate reset the often adversarial relationship with the media and also found a tone in his own communications which found the perfect sweet spot between positivity and realism.
With the pressure off, England reached the last four at the 2018 World Cup and then, with more talent integrated into the squad, they methodically progressed through Euro 2020, paying little attention to the constant reminders of failures past.
Still, players in the squad who experienced the bitterness of failure and its fall-out know where they have come from.
Roberto Mancini had a different history to confront after Italy's dismal qualifying campaign for Russia under Gian Piero Ventura ended with the humiliation of a playoff loss to Sweden.
Like Southgate, Mancini turned to youth, but his biggest impact has been on the style of football produced by the Azzurri.
Italy use a 4-3-3 formation, with two playmakers in midfield, usually Jorginho and Marco Verratti, supporting two wingers who like to cut inside and full backs pushing forward to offer width.
There has been a greater emphasis on aggressive pressing and the result has been one of the most enjoyable Italian teams to watch in years.
But Mancini's revolution did not undermine the fundamentals and he was wise to keep the experience of Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci at the back, who maintain Italy's traditional defensive strength.
While England have only once previously reached the final of a major tournament, also on home soil back in 1966, this will be Italy's 10th major final and Mancini instilled in his team a belief that they could quickly rise back to the top.
HEAD TO HEAD
Italy has won 11 games out of a total of 30 matches played between the two sides, while England has managed to emerge victorious on eight occasions.
Their previous meeting in 2018 at Wembley ended in a 1-1 draw after Italy's Lorenzo Insigne scored a late equaliser after Jamie Vardy put the host ahead.
55 - England have reached their first major tournament final in 55 years, since winning the 1966 World Cup on home soil. It's the longest gap between final appearances for any European nation in the history of the two competitions. Jubilation. #ENGDEN #EURO2020 pic.twitter.com/e333IaLOGQ— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) July 7, 2021
WHO'S SAYING WHAT
Roberto Mancini, Italy coach: "We have been working towards this for many years so we are very happy and I can only thank the players for what they have done so far. We have won nothing yet; we will have to win on Sunday to consider it a success. England will have an entire stadium behind them. It will be on us to put them under pressure. A final is a bit different from other games – we will have to play with focus but also with joy because you can only win a final if you take the field to have fun."
Giorgio Chiellini, Italy captain: "We'll need to have a strong heart and a clear head. There will be moments when we need to brave and others when we need to be flexible. You can't go into a game thinking you'll be in control for the full 90 minutes. It's a final and we'll need to take care of the details in order to win it. Games like these may not come along again for me in my playing career – it's special to be part of it. We're aware of just how important this game is. Light-heartedness and a little bit of madness have got us this far and we'll need them tomorrow if we're to win this cup."
Gareth Southgate, England manager: "The reality of any team is that we never get these 26 players together again. It just doesn't work that way. They've left a great legacy, whatever happens, but now it's about the colour of the medal, and you get very few opportunities in your life to do something like this. So we have to seize that moment and give ourselves the best chance of winning. Probably, [at the 2018 World Cup] in Russia, we were feeling a little bit differently about getting to the semi-final and what we really believed was possible, whereas now we know that we'll still be unfulfilled if we get to Monday and haven't won the tournament."
Harry Kane, England forward: "We have a great belief in the team. We have great strength in the squad but a lot can happen in a final and we need to make sure we're on the right side of it. We've been knocking down barriers along the way but we started this tournament with an aim to win it and we've now got the opportunity. To see the fans on the street like they have been and to see the reception we've had as we've pulled into the hotel and as we left St George's Park, it just shows us how big an occasion it is."
22 - Raheem Sterling has been involved in 22 goals in his last 22 @England appearances (15 goals, 7 assists). In his first 45 caps, he'd been involved in half this tally (11). Vital.@matt_furniss looks at @Sterling7's journey in an England shirt for @OptaAnalyst. #ENG #Euro2020— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) July 9, 2021
KEY OPTA STATS
Form guide (most recent first)
Italy: Donnarumma; Di Lorenzo, Bonucci, Chiellini, Emerson; Barella, Jorginho, Verratti; Chiesa, Immobile, Insigne
Out: Spinazzola (Achilles)
England: Pickford; Walker, Stones, Maguire, Shaw; Rice, Phillips; Saka, Mount, Sterling; Kane
Doubtful: Foden (minor knock)
- With inputs from Uefa.com