England and Italy go head-to-head on Sunday for the European Championship trophy in a game that is undoubtedly the Three Lions’ biggest in 55 years.
After an underwhelming start, the team has grown into the tournament, as their last three performances against Germany, Ukraine and Denmark has created a wave of optimism about the team’s chances ahead of their first tournament final since 1966.
In their way stand Italy, the slight favourites the match, and a side that has been the most impressive at the tournament so far, combining strength in defence with a fluid attack that has the potential to cause any team problems.
Both teams are injury-free, barring a minor knock to Phil Foden, and, following Italy’s success in the tournament, it is widely expected that Roberto Mancini will continue with the 4-3-3 system that has served them so well so far, with the personnel largely similar as well.
Federico Chiesa, although he started the tournament on the bench, has impressed in recent games, especially in helping his team out a hole with a goal against Spain, and is now one of the first names on the team-sheet ahead of Sassuolo’s Domenico Berardi.
England, meanwhile, could well start with an unchanged line-up, the first time that this will have happened in three years. Following a set of outstanding performances against Denmark, the only question marks surround whether 19-year-old Bukayo Saka will start, considering his relative youth and inexperience.
There was some suggestion that Gareth Southgate would revert to a back three in consideration of Italy’s abundant attacking threat, but this appears unlikely, considering how well England have grown into their 4-2-3-1 system over the past couple of games.
Southgate has mainly focused on the sentimental aspects of this game in the build-up to the match, stating that he is “couldn’t be prouder to be an Englishman”, and citing examples of English fortitude in the past, in order to whip fans up to the final. Some of his statements were arguably a slight blip on Southgate’s otherwise pristine public record, as he cited World War Two as inspiring the players against Germany:
“People have tried to invade us and we’ve had the courage to hold that back. You can’t hide that some of the energy in the stadium against Germany was because of that. I never mentioned that to the players, but I know that’s part of what that story was.”
These are the opportunities you have to grab with both hands
– Harry Kane
These sentiments of highlighting the importance of the supporter’s backing have been reinforced by captain and England’s top scorer at the tournament so far Harry Kane, who touched upon the rapport the team has built up with the fans across the past few weeks, something he said was down to the players being “normal lads”:
“I think it’s the biggest game in my career so far and probably the biggest game of all of our careers so far.
“You dream of these moments as a kid – lifting trophies for your country. And we have that opportunity now.
“These are the opportunities you have to grab with both hands.”
Kane has improved throughout the competition after a shaky start but will be faced by his hardest opponents yet in the form of Italy’s stalwarts Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini.
These two legends of the game are not only brilliant defenders but also have a winner’s mentality that is vital in finals, such as the game on Sunday. Chiellini has already started the mind games by saying that he “expected” England to reach the final, due to their home advantage throughout the tournament, but both players have also stated their respect for the opposition.
In talking about the England attack, Bonucci stated:
“Well, it’s youngsters versus veterans, let’s say. The English forwards are very strong and great players, so we’ll need to be very cautious in our defence and the whole team must be very cautious.
“We know how they can bring difficulties for us, so we’ll need to pay a lot of attention to the pace, and to the quickness of their forwards like Harry Kane and others.”
The likes of Raheem Sterling and Bukayo Saka have consistently proven the threat they can pose throughout the tournament so far, and Chiellini and Bonucci will have to utilise every ounce of their footballing acumen to belie their ageing bodies and shut out the space for the England attackers.
The place where it feels as if the game will be won or lost, however, is in the midfield, where the strength of this Italy team arguably truly lies. The trio of Jorginho, Nicolo Barella and Marco Verratti are excellent at holding on to possession, and will expect to dominate the ball up against the more defensive Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips.
England’s defence has been the most impenetrable at the tournament so far, so Italy’s midfield will play a vital role in finding and creating space for their attackers to operate in, and any England success in the game will require Rice and Phillips to shut down this space and nullify any threat the Italians pose.
However, whatever happens in the match, and whatever the tactical and mental battles that will inevitably take place, there can be no doubt that this will be quite an occasion, and this team will undoubtedly go down in history as one of the great England sides.