First there was Jorginho, then there was Harry Kane. One nonchalant hop, skip and a side foot from the former and a one-two with the goalkeeper from the latter. Both Italy and England required penalties of some description to construct their path into the final of Euro 2020.
After completing 120 minutes of gruelling, breath-taking football, Italy and England booked their places in the showpiece final at Wembley with victories over Spain and Denmark respectively.
For the Azzurri this is familiar territory. Italy have been to two European Championship finals since the turn of the millennium, falling at the hands of France in 2000 and Spain in 2012. They’ve won four World Cups and lifted the Euros in 1968 with a 2-0 win over Yugoslavia in a replay having drawn the first game 1-1 – the only major international tournament to ever be decided by a replay.
You only had to see Giorgio Chiellini’s not so subtle manhandling of Jordi Alba prior to Italy’s penalty shootout victory over Spain to recognise that England’s opponents know that winning is about much more than just technical superiority: It’s a state of mind.
For England, however, this is about as wild a deviation from the norm as they come. Not only has Gareth Southgate led England to the final, he’s pulled off such a rare achievement with minimum fuss, as if this is the most normal thing in the world for a country which has for so long been stuck in a recurring nightmare of inevitable disappointment.
But, at long last, the demons have been exorcised and England will have their first shot at a major trophy since their last triumph at the 1966 World Cup.
Italy have been fancied to win the trophy since they first dismantled Turkey in the opening game of Euro 2020. Mancini’s side exerted a level of swagger that you typically associate with trophy winners, and no evidence has since presented itself to undermine that early tournament feeling.
The head-to-head record shows that England have more than just their own chequered history to overcome on Sunday. England have won eight of their 27 matches against Italy but not one of those victories arrived during a major tournament. These two sides have faced each other four times at major tournaments and Italy have triumphed on all four occasions.
However, this is a new England, a side unchained from their stifling, stagnant past, a collection of players who are writing their own history under the watchful eye of a manager who has unified the fans, players and media together in a manner few ever thought possible.
Individual figureheads such as Jordan Henderson, Harry Maguire and Harry Kane have been pivotal to this revolution. During this tournament, though, Raheem Sterling has been England’s most influential player and it’s now difficult to look beyond him for the Player of the Tournament award irrespective of what happens on Sunday. No player at Euro 2020 has completed more dribbles than Sterling’s 18, which is 12 more than Italy’s best dribbler in Federico Chiesa.
That gulf in dribbling output is symptomatic of the broader spread in attacking contribution across the Italian squad. Kane and Sterling have scored the bulk of England’s goals with seven out of ten during the tournament, whereas five Italian players – Chiesa, Manuel Locatelli, Ciro Immobile, Lorenzo Insigne and Matteo Pessina – have all chipped in with two apiece. England like to attack down the left through Sterling and the overlapping Luke Shaw, who has a tournament-high return of three assists.
Bukayo Saka has been lively down the right since coming into the side against the Czech Republic and Southgate also has Phil Foden and Jadon Sancho to select in that position, but the key to an Italian victory almost certainly hinges on their ability to mitigate the threat offered by the flourishing left-sided partnership of Sterling and Shaw.
There are a number of first-class attacking players for England to nullify on Sunday, but the game-defining responsibility may actually fall upon the proficiency of Mason Mount’s defensive work. Jorginho has been at the epicentre of Italy’s tournament, dictating the play in the midfield anchor role. Chelsea’s metronome has recorded 426 completed passes, which, aside from Spanish players, is the joint-highest in the competition along with England centre-back John Stones.
Having acquired intimate knowledge of Jorginho’s strengths and weaknesses at Chelsea, Mount is better equipped than most to silence the 29-year-old and ensure Italy do not control the midfield battle.
If England have been one thing at this tournament, then it’s efficient. They haven’t captured the imagination quite like the Italians, and in truth few onlookers were particularly inspired by their group stage performance despite topping Group D without conceding a goal.
Southgate’s players conduct themselves methodically at both ends of the field. Of the 53 tackles that English players have attempted at this tournament, 33 have been completely successfully. That’s a success rate of 60%, which is dramatically superior to Italy’s success rate of 28%, with just 21 tackles won from 74 attempted challenges.
Meanwhile, moving forward, England’s 58 attempts at goal have yielded 10 goals. Italy have had almost double the number of shots (108) but have only mustered up an extra two goals during the competition. The evidence suggests that England are one of two things: less creative than their opponents or shrewder with their decision-making in the final third.
The stats provide some indication as to what we can expect this weekend, but footballing logic and seemingly inevitable tactical patterns are so often abandoned in games of this magnitude.
England fans hold their breath in anticipation for the long promised homecoming.