Amid all the praise of the two most successful managers at Euro 2020, some glimpses of ruthlessness. Roberto Mancini, admired for developing the collective endeavour of his resurgent Italy, still has a clear squad hierarchy in his mind. It will govern his choices for Sunday’s final.
England’s Gareth Southgate, for all his willingness to pick specific starting XIs for particular tasks, operates likewise.
Jack Grealish, 25, learnt that abruptly in Wednesday’s taut semi-final victory over Denmark. Introduced from the bench in the 69th minute with England taking control but still seeking the goal that would give them the lead, Grealish found himself back in his seat once England went 2-1 ahead, well before the final whistle of extra time. Grealish the substitute had been subbed. When that happens in cases other than injury, it easily bruises self-esteem.
“Jack understood,” said Southgate after his plan to shore up England’s right-flank by bringing on full-back Kieran Trippier for the attacking spark. Grealish had been on the pitch 37 minutes.
Manuel Locatelli, 23, learnt the limits of Roberto Mancini’s admiration of his midfield dynamism a couple of weeks ago. Locatelli shone in Italy’s 3-0 wins over Turkey and Switzerland in the group phase. He scored the first brace of his entire professional career in the defeat of the Swiss. But he has not started for Italy since, with Marco Verratti’s return to fitness superseding any claims Locatelli had made to being essential to Mancini’s best XI.
England fans celebrate win over Denmark
Just as Grealish may fear his last active part in Euro 2020 was being the sub who was replaced, so Locatelli may worry that his last kick of the tournament was the penalty he had saved in the shoot-out after he came on from the bench in the semi-final against Spain.
Both players’ experiences speak for the strength in depth of Sunday’s finalists. They also know that with five substitutes available — six if there is extra-time — they are in the thoughts of their managers even if they are not among the 22 starters at kick-off at Wembley.
Southgate and Mancini face some tricky choices. The direct match-ups across positions suggest a final of equals. Stamina will come under consideration. Mancini knows it has been a while since Giorgio Chiellini, the 36-year-old Italy captain, played a full 90 minutes three times in nine days for his club Juventus. He has already played 210 minutes in Italy’s last two knockout games.
The veteran heart of Italy’s defence — Chiellini and 34-year-old Leo Bonucci — will be up against Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling. The physical combat with Kane will play to their fortes. But the movement of Sterling and Kane will test them. Italy were troubled by the unpredictable positions Dani Olmo, a ‘false nine’, took up for Spain in the semi-final. Kane is a master of the ambiguous gap between the centre-forward’s traditional role and that of the deeper number 10; Sterling has had a brilliant Euro 2020 because of his sharp antenna for where to dart and his skill in duels.
On the flanks, England’s full-backs have excelled. Kyle Walker against Lorenzo Insigne is a contest to relish, Walker’s pace in recovery a huge asset, Insigne’s accomplished, goal-scoring ability to manoeuvre himself on to his right foot from wide on the left a trademark.
On that flank, Italy have already missed Leonardo Spinazzola since the dashing left-back was injured in the quarter-final. Southgate will think hard about which of Bukayo Saka, Jadon Sancho or Phil Foden he uses to directly attack Emerson, the back-up to Spinazzola.
Italy’s midfield trio, the players ahead of Locatelli in the hierarchy, have sought control in most games, but they had it claimed from them for long periods against Spain. They will look at the England midfield and know that experience is with Italy in that area. Jorginho is 29, Marco Verratti 28, and Nicolo Barella the youngster of the three, at 24.
Against Denmark, England lined up Kalvin Phillips, 25 and with 14 caps, and the two 22-year-olds Declan Rice and Mason Mount. Chelsea’s Jorginho and Paris Saint-Germain’s Verratti have played in Champions League finals in the last 12 months; West Ham’s Rice and Leeds’s Phillips have never played in the Champions League at all.
Nor has England goalkeeper, Everton’s Jordan Pickford, who conceded his first goal of the tournament, Mikkel Damsgaard’s superb free-kick in the semi-final. Gigi Donnarumma, Italy’s keeper, has been beaten once in each of the knockout ties so far, but can certainly trump Pickford in one area. Donnarumma is just short of two metres tall — to Pickford’s 1.85m. It’s a difference that will look significant if Sunday goes all the way to a penalty shoot-out.