Monday, July 12, 2021

European Championship

Italy is European champion after the Azzurri defeated England in a penalty shootout on Sunday. England, playing in front of home fans at Wembley Stadium, again employed a conservative style of play which brought them just close enough for heartbreak. England manager Gareth Southgate was left to ponder decisions he made at the end of the game which left many fans confused. Southgate’s decision to start Kieran Trippier, one of seven defensive players in England’s starting lineup, seemed validated when England scored just two minutes into the match as Trippier crossed to Luke Shaw for the early lead. The goal was the fastest in a European Championship final.
Shaw’s goal added to an outstanding tournament performance for the Manchester United left back who, surprisingly, was lauded by former manager, and longtime Shaw critic, Jose Mourinho in postgame remarks. With a lead in hand, however, England settled into a greater defensive mindset. Including 30 minutes of extra time, England was to launch just one further shot on target. Italy controlled 66% of the possession, making almost 400 additional passes than their opponent (820 versus 426). The breakthrough for Italy came 67 minutes into the match off a corner kick and an ensuing scramble in front of the England net following a save by Jordan Pickford. Leonardo Bonucci became the oldest player to score in a European Championship final as he was first to the ball and put in the rebound of Pickford’s save.Italy continued to dominate play as England generated little in the way of attack. England striker Harry Kane played deeper and deeper as England responded to Italian pressure and generated little offense of its own. Kane, the leading scorer and assists man in the Premier League this past season, failed to have a shot or create a scoring chance for only the second time in his 61 matches for England. Arsenal’s Bukayo Saka, who was to play a key role at the match’s conclusion, entered for Tripper at the 71-minute mark but added little. Southgate waited until extra time to insert Aston Villa’s Jack Grealish in place of an ineffective Mason Mount who had a poor tournament after his successful season at Chelsea. Two other players who might have added life to the England attack, Marcus Rashford and new Manchester United teammate Jadon Sancho, entered play in the 120th minute of play, too late to have influence in the run of play with both inserted specifically for purposes of the penalty shootout. The strategy backfired as both players, with the pressure compounded by their approaching the shootout “cold,” missed their penalty tries. Rashford’s attempt agonizingly glanced off the post after he had beaten Italian goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma. Sancho was stopped on a good save by Donnarumma on England’s fourth attempt, setting the stage for Southgate’s most curious decision. With the championship on the line, 19-year-old Bukayo Saka, having never attempted a competitive penalty kick at the senior level for club or country, was assigned England’s final chance. Unfairly put in that position, Saka missed. England lost the shootout, missing its final three attempts in succession, despite England’s Jordan Pickford stopping two of the Italian attempts. The Everton keeper set an England record for consecutive minutes without conceding earlier in the tournament and Bonucci’s goal in regulation was only the second goal allowed by England in seven Euro matches.
Despite the final disappointment, the English national team and its array of Premier League talent took another stride forward, reaching their first major tournament final in 55 years and building from their semi-final elimination in the 2018 World Cup. The future is bright for the current generation of England stars approaching the 2022 World Cup. Italy, meanwhile, celebrates an amazing renaissance by a proud football nation distraught after not qualifying for the 2018 World Cup. Roberto Mancini, who managed Manchester City to its first Premier League title in 2012, was hired to restore Italy to prominence and he has succeeded magnificently. The win over England extended Italy’s unbeaten run to 34 matches. Manchini has employed an attacking element in a well-balanced scheme which starkly contrasted with the approach of England. Forward Federico Chiesa was a constant threat until becoming injured in the 86th minute. The Italian midfield, featuring Chelsea’s Jorginho and PSG player Marco Verratti, was solidly in control and provided an element of creativity absent from England’s midfield. Defensively, Italy again relied on veteran warriors Leonardo Bonucci and Georgio Chiellini, the veteran pairing from Juventus who are a combined 70 years old. Donnarumma, though largely unchallenged before the penalties on Sunday, solidified his reputation as one of the world’s best goalkeepers during Italy’s run to the title. The former AC Milan goalkeeper, recently signed by PSG, was Player of the Tournament. Italy’s victory was its second European Championship, adding to a resume which includes four World Cup titles. 

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