After a long month of action, England and Italy are the two teams left battling for the trophy in the Euro 2020 Final at Wembley Stadium in London on Sunday (8pm; TV: Live on BBC1 & ITV).
England made their way through to their first major international final since 1966 by topping their group with two wins and a draw. They saw off Germany and then Ukraine in the first two knockout rounds and then defeating Denmark 2-1 after extra time on Wednesday.
Gareth Southgate’s side started well, but it was Denmark who took the lead through a long-range free-kick a little softly let in by goalkeeper Jordan Pickford on the half-hour. They reacted well, going close before an own goal saw them level before half time. They had the better chances through the second half into extra time, where they finally got their winner.
The penalty award was a little soft. Harry Kane saw his initial spot kick well-saved by Leicester’s Kasper Schmeichel, arguably the man of the match, in the Danish goal. The Spurs striker was first on hand to sweep home the rebound to set the clearly partisan Wembley crowd into raptures and secure England’s place in the final.
Southgate said: “I think on the balance of play when you look at the number of saves we forced the goalkeeper to make and the long periods of the game when I felt we were the biggest threat, I think we deserved it.”
He was happy with the way his side reacted after conceding for the first time in the tournament, an incredible feat.
In fact, England’s progress through the competition has largely been based upon their defensive solidity. They let loose in their 4-0 quarter-final thrashing of Ukraine but have otherwise played a conservative style of football, conceding a low number of largely low-quality opportunities and then taking advantage of transitional phases of play to create good quality chances for themselves.
With pre-tournament favourites and fancied nations such as France and Belgium already out of the way, it is Italy who stand between England and a first major international trophy in 55 years.
The Italians are, of course, much more accustomed to making progress to the latter stages of big tournaments. Since England’s World Cup win in 1966, they have won one European Championship and two World Cups whilst also reaching a further four major finals.
They didn’t, though, figure among the primary favourites for this tournament, despite having now maintained a near three-year unbeaten record under the stewardship of a familiar face to Premier League audiences: Roberto Mancini, the former title-winning coach of Manchester City.
Their surprisingly front-foot approach saw them top their group with three wins from three, before wins over Austria (in extra time) and Belgium set up a semi-final against Spain on Tuesday.
Italy reverted a little more to type in that encounter, largely sitting off and seeking opportunities to counter. It worked in getting them ahead through a fantastic strike from Federico Chiesa on the hour mark. Spain rallied to equalise late on and take the match to extra time. No further goals there meant that it went to penalties, where Italy won 4-2.
“There are games where you have to suffer,” Mancini said in his post-match press conference. “They can’t all be as smooth as our progress so far. We knew it would be a tough game. That is why the players and everyone who worked with us over the last three years deserve great credit, because it wasn’t easy.”
Given the change in focus for the semi-final, it will be interesting to see how Italy approach Sunday’s final. Will they come out fast, press England high and hope to force an early goal or will they adopt a more cautious approach against a team who are themselves unlikely to take unnecessary risks, at least in the early stages.
The last four matches between these sides have yielded a win apiece and two draws, the most recent in a 2018 friendly at Wembley. It was, though, Italy who came out on top when they last met in knockout competition, on penalties after a 0-0 draw in the quarter final of Euro 2012.
England are arguably a better team, player for player, than Italy, particularly at a squad level, and while it is sure to be a close game, the direct pacy threat that players like Raheem Sterling, Bukayo Saka et al give them in wide areas against a relatively slow Italian defence could prove to be the difference maker. Football might just be coming home.
So our England vs Italy betting tips selection for this Euro 2020 Final match preview is: