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A Dagger through the Heart

Italy 1, England 1 (after extra time)

Italy win 3-2 on penalties.

European Championships Final

July 11, 2021.

By Kevan James

Italy are the European Champions after beating England in a penalty shoot -out after the two teams remained locked together at 1-1 after 90 minutes and another half-hour after that. Italy have brightened this tournament and shown how it needs to be done. They have players of skill, craft and thought, a manager in Roberto Mancini who knows what it takes to win things, as he did at Manchester City, and a history; four World Cups and two European titles for Italy now. They also know what it is to lose these games, this being their fourth Euro final, with the previous two ending in defeat after winning their first way back in 1968.

England need not hang their heads however. There is honour in defeat and there were other nations who would gladly change places. England has now reached two semi-finals, a final and with a world cup not too far away, these are young players who have boundless promise. So what will it take to go the final mile and win a major trophy?

There are a number of things. On the positive side, one of them is that England now look much more comfortable with the ball, can keep it, be patient and more thoughtful in their approach. This however has to be translated into a more consistent series of incisive final passes. England can do it – they proved it with a glorious goal from Luke Shaw in this game. Shaw started the move deep in his own half by passing the ball instead of lumping it long, as so many of his predecessors used to. A run from deep as the ball was delightfully passed across the width of the pitch ended with the left back drilling a volley into the Italian net after less than two minutes of the game.

Lesser sides have folded after an early blow but not this Italian team. Bonnuci and Chellini are rocks at the back and have years of experience behind them. So do many of their team mates. And the key to England’s future lies in the same area. Many of the Italians play regularly for their club sides in Italy and there are some plying their trade in England. But they are, for the most part, playing regularly and in European club competition. Can one say the same for England’s players?

Harry Kane for example, doesn’t play for a club that features year in, year out at the top level of either the Premier League or the European Champions League. There are a few of the older players in the squad that do, Harry Maguire being one, Luke Shaw another. But many of the younger players are not playing every week. They are left out of their club sides in favour of foreigners. Some of those grace the game in England, some don’t.

But clubs in this country still fall over themselves to sign them. Until and unless the emphasis changes to tap into the talent that has always been there and priority is given to them, English players will continue to lack that little extra something that turns good performances into great ones. That turns flashes of brilliance into persistent brilliance. That provides the know-how to weather the inevitable times during games when things don’t go as planned. Italy had that extra something in this final, England did not.

The same feature did for the Three Lions against Croatia in the world cup semi-finals three years ago; again in the Nations League semi-finals and once more now. That recent record however, speaks volumes for the progress England have made under Gareth Southgate. It is also worth pointing out that those nations who have been the most successful are also ones who have stumbled at one point or another. Italy remember, didn’t even qualify for the last world cup. France found themselves adrift and re-organised their game – since then they have been World Champions twice and European Champions once. Germany will reinvent now, as will Brazil and Argentina. And other countries will carry on producing bright young talent – much of it eagerly seized upon by English Premier League clubs, hoovering up teenage talent wherever around the globe they can find it and to the detriment of young English players.

It has been said that one of the reasons for this is that young English players aren’t as keen on the grafting part of real success; that they want the big money, bling, houses and fast cars without putting in the hard hours first. There is something in that but the answer is not to pack squads with players from somewhere else but to teach and coach players born and bred in England better. To get the bad habits out and the good ones in, to reward them with first team regularity when they deserve it and to give them the chances to develop the hard hours experience that is not there yet. That is why England lost this final, despite that dream opening.

It must be said that England were much the brighter in the first half, albeit without having the cutting edge that could have brought them another goal or even two. Italy gradually began to claw their way back into things and emerged much the stronger for the second period, which they dominated. Bonucci’s equaliser was no surprise even though it came from a goalmouth scramble.

England found their way back into the game during extra time and had resilience and stubbornness throughout but by the end however Italy simply had too much big-match experience. Penalties are the great leveller and given England’s poor record with them, Italy must have fancied their chances and so it proved.

One could be harsh and question why young players like Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka should take them; both missed. Even the greatest have done that so one shouldn’t be hard on either of them or Marcus Rashford who also missed – at least they had the courage to take them. And they may well be better for it too; there will be more of these occasions and this final will be remembered by them, as it was Southgate’s own memories.

England did at least reach this final even though its ending pierced the heart. Now it’s up to English clubs to see the light, find more young English players and play them regularly to go with the crop the country currently has.

© Kevan James 2021

Images - © Reuters 2021


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