Mancini promised Italy change. And he delivered

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LONDON — Roberto Mancini had promised a change when he took over following the Italy national team’s lowest point, after they failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. And he delivered.

While history will record him as the coach who led Italy to the 2020 European Championship (on June 11, 2021, but that’s another story), his contribution is far greater. He turned a country’s approach to their national team — one of the few institutions all Italians share, from north to south, outside of the Catholic church, family and pasta — into something few thought it could be: something fun, something courageous, something proactive, based on wanting the ball and taking risks with it. When you’ve enjoyed success on a grand scale — four World Cups and, now, two Euros — this is the proverbial U-turn in a supertanker.

That would have been true regardless of the result of the spot kicks at Wembley. Penalty kicks may not be the lottery that the cliche says they are, but they’re not football either. They’re a different competition entirely. One that requires technical ability, guts, mental strength and maybe a little bit of devil-may-care craziness too, but it’s not football.

And the judgement of Mancini — and, for that matter, his opposite number Gareth Southgate — does not and should not change based on who wins a shootout.

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But, yeah, when you get this far and get to take home the cup it’s that much sweeter. Particularly when you can go into your opponent’s house and take it from them, after going down a goal, with your fans outnumbered five to one and without one of your best players in the tournament (OK, so Leonardo Spinazzola was there, limping around on his crutches, but he wasn’t playing).

Oh, and let’s remind ourselves of who was out there for most of extra-time. You had a centre-forward from nearly relegated Torino (Andrea Belotti), two guys from tiny Sassuolo (Manuel Locatelli and Domenico Berardi), Chelsea’s third-choice left-back (Emerson) and Juventus’ third-string winger (Federico Bernardeschi). Meanwhile, until two minutes from full-time, the likes of Jadon Sancho and Marcus Rashford watched from the sidelines … but that’s another story and one Gareth Southgate can explain in due course.

The penalty kicks may have determined who takes home the trophy, but the way the previous 120 minutes unfolded determined who out-coached who. And Mancini won that one hands down.

England set up more conservatively than usual, with an extra full-back, Kieran Trippier, transforming the 4-2-3-1 of previous outings into a 3-4-2-1. England scoring after just two minutes played right into Southgate’s hands and made an already difficult task even tougher for Mancini. It set up nicely for England to sit deep and hit on the counterattack with the speedy Raheem Sterling. It also allowed England’s front three to effectively press Italy’s midfield trio, the team’s creative engine. Throw in an inspired Harry Kane and there was a real sense that England could add to their lead, particularly considering Italy looked ragged and struggled to find space, other than the occasional Lorenzo Insigne free kick and the odd run from the blistering Federico Chiesa.

Except England didn’t drive home their advantage. Instead, they drove themselves further and further towards their own goal, perhaps hoping that some counterattack would materialise out of the ether. Mancini’s possession game, while failing to blunt England’s de facto line of seven (five defenders plus two holding midfielders) at least took the sting out of the game and saw them through to the break.

“That early goal we gave up hit us hard,” Mancini said. “But we had the strength to get back into the game and, I think, deserved to win.”

He pulled the trigger just before the hour mark. Off went Ciro Immobile (always fighting a losing battle) and Nicolo Barella, on came Berardi and Bryan Cristante. Insigne moved into a central position — call it “false nine” if you like, though it was more like “real ten” — and Chiesa and Berardi became the de facto strikers, cutting in from wide areas.

Insigne began to find space where previously there was none. Jordan Pickford had to make two tough saves in rapid succession, the first off a close-range Insigne effort, the second from the effervescent Chiesa. Then came the goal, with Leonardo Bonucci popping up to poke it home after Pickford deflected Cristante’s header off the post. Scrappy? Maybe, but it had been coming. A few minutes later, a pinpoint ball over the top found Berardi, whose volleyed contact wasn’t quite sweet enough — otherwise it would have been a goal of the tournament contender.

The 90 minutes ended with a reminder that, for all the smiles and positivity, there’s still that little bit of nasty lurking in Giorgio Chiellini’s heart: when Bukayo Saka spun him by the touchline, he resorted to an old-school horse-collar yank to stop the counter. Saka is young enough that he could be Chielini’s son; maybe that’s why the Italy captain looked down at him with the sort of look that said: “Sorry kid, this hurts me more than it hurts you.”

But there’s more to Chiellini than that: In the first period of extra-time he was simply phenomenal in snuffing out a Raheem Sterling counter, his 36-year-old body a model of efficiency, if not flat-out speed. Chiellini celebrated the way Joel Embiid might after rejecting a shot. Sterling smiled and nodded as he ran back up the pitch — even he appreciated the tackle. Chiellini would make another similar stop, one that was part experience, part witchcraft, on Sterling, England’s last man standing, in the second half of extra-time.

Then came the penalties, with their cruel shifts in momentum. Belotti seeing his saved (advantage, England); then Rashford dribbling his out of play (deuce); Gianluigi Donnarumma saving from Jadon Sancho (advantage Italy); Jorginho seeing his strike hit the post, bounce off Pickford and then nestle in the goalkeeper’s arms (deuce); and then Donnarumma’s oversized frame snuffing out Saka for the win.

Mancini’s men played some of the best football at the Euros. Not just that, with the exception of stretches of the Spain game, his side outplayed the opposition in every game. The final told its own story: Italy had 62% possession, outshot the opposition 20 to six and held England to a single shot on target — Luke Shaw’s goal.

He did it by making a hand-brake turn away from Italian football’s history. He did it without having the most gifted squad at the Euros. He did it with x’s and o’s, but also with plenty of psychology and charisma. And his Italy side are now unbeaten in 34 matches, one shy of the record held by Spain.

“What made us special? Our belief and the relationships we developed with each other,” Bonucci said. “We’ve been together for 50 days now and we’re still not tired of each other. Even when we had time off and we got to see our families, we still hung out with each other. My wife pointed it out and asked me why the players were all together even when the families were around. We never got bored of each other. Normally, when you’re away for that long, you want to go home. But we never felt that way. We wanted to go on, to be with each other until the very end. Until now.”

Now, it’s over. Now they can go home. And they can take the cup with them.

Bonucci was asked if he really did shout “It’s coming to Rome” into the cameras, a dig at the ubiquitous “Football’s coming home” song favoured by the English.

“Absolutely, yes,” he exclaimed. “We’ve been hearing that since Wednesday night, when they beat Denmark to reach the final. Sorry for them, but it’s going somewhere else. It’s getting on a big plane and going to Rome. We believed in this, we earned it and now it’s right that we celebrate.”



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