Old warriors Bonucci and Chiellini lead Italy to Euro 2020 win over England

Veteran defenders key to Azzurri victory at Wembley

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Leo Bonucci won the scrabble for the loose ball, close to the England goal line. Then he won the high jump. Having poked in the equaliser, Bonucci sprinted to the crowd, leapt up on the barrier separating spectators from pitch. He balanced there, holding his warrior pose.

Outnumbered hugely in the crowd, Italy’s few thousand away fans saw in that tableau that a proud, long record of matches without defeat had a determined protector. Bonucci is a veteran of well over 100 caps. He was not ready to let the early ambush England prepared for the Euro 2020 final go by without an answer, although it took patience, hard graft and some strategic rethinks for Italy to work their way back into a gripping contest.

Bonucci would later score his penalty in the shootout, a cruel device by which to decide a final, and especially cruel when a teenager is the luckless man whose spot-kick is saved in the final action of an entire tournament. Sympathy will abound for Bukayo Saka, and respect swell for an Italy who are now unbeaten in 34 matches.

Bonucci is 34, still remembers with pain the disappointment of his previous European championship final, when Italy, as he put it, were “exhausted” by Spain in a 4-0 thrashing in Kiev nine summers ago.

He has known other lows as an Azzurri legend, like the failure to reach the last World Cup. He had heard it murmured that his 12-year-partnership with Giorgio Chiellini at the heart of Italy’s defence might be their weakness against the darting Raheem Sterling, the drifting Harry Kane.

Bonucci and Chiellini have a combined age of 70, which is enough years to pose questions over their stamina and turn of speed. Chiellini certainly knew it would be examined when he grasped at Saka’s shirt as Saka threatened to sprint clear of him in the last minute of normal time. Yet Chiellini rightly backed himself to reach the ball first as Sterling danced towards the Italy six-yard box in the second half of extra-time.

But it was not so much Italy’s readiness to last through a long, nervy night in rainy London as their alertness at the start of it that had set up a final of tantalising ebb and flow.

Through much of the afternoon, once news had leaked that Gareth Southgate, the England manager, had decided once again to alter a winning line-up, the voices of critics would be heard louder and louder. Three-at-the-back, a system previously used only in the last-16 match against Germany during England’s progress through the tournament, can be interpreted as cautious.

Italy wins Euro 2020 after penalties with England

Italy wins Euro 2020 after penalties with England

Yet it took under two minutes for England to establish that the change from a back-four meant fresh potency, and a goal-making alliance few would have anticipated. Kieran Trippier, the player brought in at right wing-back, would enjoy freedom and space through the first half, and acres of it in his first safari up the pitch. His cross, unimpeded by a marker, picked out the left wing-back, Luke Shaw, whose half-volley put England on the front foot startlingly early.

A surprise ambush? In every respect, not only because one wing-back had supplied the pass for the other to score, in the identity of the scorer. It was Shaw’s first international goal, and quite a moment for a footballer who has endured punishing ups and downs, including devastating injury since he was identified, by Southgate among others, as brilliantly precocious.

Shaw turns 26 on Monday. It will be a birthday of many regrets. But he and Saka and all this bright England team can look forward with hope. Because of the disjointed international schedule, and delays caused by the global pandemic, the wait for the next major tournament is unusually short. The 2022 World Cup begins in 497 days.

That makes momentum absolutely relevant. Both managers from the final will believe they have that, and have strength in depth to maintain that momentum through the inevitable aches, strains and absences that a demanding club calendar will present. They also know that they do not need an array of superstars, but a sound team ethic, some flexibility, and the strength to recover from setback to conquer the big prizes.

Updated: July 12, 2021, 7:23 AM