That it was penalties, and the element that Gareth Southgate was supposed to address more than any other, only added to the anguish. That it was Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka who missed only added to the unfairness of it in terms of emotion – not that Italy will see it like that. They more than deserved their win.
The really big question that will persist on until a trophy is finally won – and England will surely never get a better chance than this – is why Southgate’s side so squandered the initiative; why a 1-0 lead was allowed to become 1-1 and then even worse.
There are maybe bigger questions for the organisers of this tournament, given how shambolic – and downright dangerous – the circumstances at Wembley were. Supporters told The Independent that “hundreds, “maybe over a thousand fans” had got in without tickets, and that could be seen all around as supporters crammed into spaces and there were in many places two a seat.
It just meant that there were even more England fans there to witness this pain. The great homecoming ended up seeing a few home truths, as many of the remaining criticisms of Southgate were borne out. His caution undid England here. The game – like the whole tournament – had fallen their way and was there to be won.
So many advantages evaporated, right up to Luke Shaw’s opening goal and that superb start.
This shouldn’t be to take away from Italy. The team of the tournament have ended up the most justified winners of the tournament, adding resilience and defiance to their list of qualities.
They even had to endure the brilliant Federico Chiesa joining Spinazzola on the bench. They also had to endure a dismal opening, and what seemed a sure sign the home team would at least take glory. That will only add to their satisfaction, how they recovered, their resilience.
The opening goal wasn’t just a moment of deafening celebration, but had seemed one of definitive vindication. Southgate had immediate pay-off for another tactical decision. It wasn’t just that one wing-back scored, but that the other set it up. Neither Shaw nor Trippier would probably have been in these positions in quite the same way if Southgate had gone with a four. Here they were, though, just punishing Italy.
The force of Shaw’s finish was almost a distillation of the conviction in England’s game at that time. It was a drea start, that should have been the set-up for the greatest celebrations. Trippier floated his cross over a paralysed Italian defence, and Shaw just followed through with his run to drive it past Gianluigi Donnarumma. It was instead to be the last time they had anything like such iniative. Two minutes. That was it.
Roberto Mancini’s side were badly missing Leonardo Spinazzola, given how he would have pinned Trippier back, but they found something else. They found a resolve. And they kept finding each other in play.
In one stoppage, Mancini could be seen manically gesticulating at Chiesa. It was the Juventus forward that almost single-handedly turned the momentum in the game, which made it all the more cruel when he was forced off before the end of normal time through injury. Italy had lost their two best players for the climax. It put Southgate’s misuse of his own bench into context.
There were still times here when Chiesa had to do it all himself. He was the source of Italy’s most dangerous moment of the first half, as he broke from deep to shoot narrowly wide, but that was part of the problem at the time.
It was a rare foray, getting that far, as Italy were reduced to speculative long shots by the half-hour. The great wonder was why England didn’t build on that. That should be even more haunting than the penalties.
They seemed content to sit and try and contain Italy through shape alone. It is remarkable given Southgate himself had spoken against this, and been so conscious of precisely these situations.
It of course had the effect of inviting Italy on and rewarding them with the initiative.
Italy, for their part, more than took charge. Marco Verratti began to take control of the game rather than just taking control of the ball for aimless possession. There was purpose now.
Chiesa – of course – signalled that with one purposeful run this time into the English box that brought a fine save out of Pickford.
That was when it really started to run away from Southgate’s side. It was as if Italy in that moment realised a vulnerability in England. Leo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini were meanwhile pushing their side up, rallying them, as they kept everything else out.
Pickford wasn’t so sharp for the equaliser, but then no one in the England backline was. A team so good at the basics for so much of this tournament completely failed to deal with a corner, allowing Verratti to force Pickford into a meek save off the post before Bonucci drove in the loose ball.
Substitutes inevitably saw the game swing again, as Southgate once more used England’s array of attacking options to effect, but there was also one that wasn’t expected.
The brilliant Chiesa had to go off, removing so much of Italy’s thrust. It was now Italy’s turn to stifle England.
The prospect of penalties weighed over the game. The players ended up feeling the immense pressure, worse than any other.
Andrea Belotti was the first to buckle. Rashford followed with a run-up that betrayed his anxiety. Sancho stuttered too. Jorginho had the chance to win it. Even he missed. Poor Saka had a reprieve. There was no relief. It shouldn’t be on the young star, who has been so brilliant in this tournament. It’s hard not to put on Southgate? Why were two players who hadn’t had a kick all night taking the most important kicks? Why was the most inexperienced player taking the most important penalty?
It's another oh-so-near – closer than ever before, and yet even further away.
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