IT HAS been 37 years since a host nation won the European Championship, a golden tournament that witnessed Michel Platini stand imperiously astride the continent with a highly seductive France side. England, the de facto hosts of Euro 2020, have the chance to do likewise, but it won’t be easy – hosts don’t often prosper in this competition.
England’s trump card (we really need to replace that description) is not so much home status, but the partisan audience that has come out of hiding in recent weeks. We’ve become unaccustomed to the sound of the crowd over the past year and a half, but in the semi-final at Wembley, the noise was deafening, the intention unequivocal. The presence of spectators was almost unnerving and this could be turned to England’s advantage on July 11.
Never mind that the Euros may herald the beginning of another upturn in covid cases, if England win, it will be akin to uncorking a vigorously shaken-up bottle of sparkling wine. After 55 years of “hurt”, It could get out of control.
England versus Italy is one of those finals that “perfect world” romantics often dream about. Along with England v Brazil and England v Germany, it ranks as one of those clashes the marketing department genuinely hope for. It will never be too arduous to sell England v Italy, but it might have been harder to sell Denmark v Spain or Denmark v Belgium. UEFA must be relieved that two blue riband nations are playing in the final.
But England have to beware. The last two hosts to reach the final have both been beaten – Portugal in 2004 and France in 2016. Only three times have hosts won the Henri Delaunay Trophy: Spain in 1964, Italy in 1968 and France 1984. If you consider Europe’s big five leagues to be England, France, Germany, Italy and Spain, then the Euro final has featured big five derbies four times in the past: 1984 (France v Spain); 2000 (France v Italy); 2008 (Spain v Germany); and 2012 (Spain v Italy).
On the face of it, this is a tight final, although England will be favourites with many people. In competitive games over the past two tournaments (World Cup 2018/Euro 2020) and their qualifiers, Italy have a win rate of 78.57% and England 76.7%. Italy have played 28 games, despite being absent at the World Cup in Russia, and England have played 30. In total, Italy, under Roberto Mancini, have embarked on an unbeaten run of more than 30 games.
England have the advantage of younger legs. Of the Italian starting XI that won the semi-final, four were 30 or over. Admittedly, players like Giorgio Chiellini are polished veterans, but England’s only 30-something was Kyle Walker, and he’s still got muscle and speed. Italy have played almost all of their 26-man squad at some stage, goalkeeper Alex Meret is the only member of the party not have been fielded for at least five minutes. England, meanwhile, have used 21 of their 26 players with six starting every game compared to just three Italian ever-presents.
England will also be favourites because they have the most valuable squad. According to Transfermarkt, the entire England squad is valued at over £ 1 billion, while Italy’s is £ 676 million. Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling and Mason Mount were already among the most coveted players in Europe, but to that list Bukayo Saka will surely be added after Euro 2020. Jack Grealish, Jadon Sancho and Phil Foden may get their chance next year in Qatar, but they have been used sparingly. For Italy, more people now know about Nicoló Barella, Federico Chiesa, Lorenzo Insigne and Leonardo Spinazzola.
In the back of Gareth Southgate’s mind must surely be the knowledge that England rarely beat Italy in serious matches. In fact, their only victory in competitive action was in 1977 when England won 2-0 at Wembley in a World Cup qualifier. Times have changed since Italy’s defence-minded approach would intimidate opponents, but it does seem as though the “Azzurri” are in the ascendancy once more. But then so are England, who have found the recipe to tournament management. It has been a long time coming, but the strength of the unit is there for all to see.
So too is the team’s confidence and ability to surge forward. Sterling and Saka seem to scare the living daylights out of defenders, if only for their habit of inviting costly challenges. And at corners and free-kicks, the leaping brick wall that is Harry Maguire appears to win everything.
Southgate seems to have found a similar kind of “men for the job” approach that served Sir Alf Ramsey so well in 1966. Not everyone would have selected Maguire, Kalvin Phillips, Declan Rice and Raheem Sterling, but Southgate has resisted the call for popular choices like Grealish and Foden to rely on those he trusts the most. Like Ramsey, he has seen his team improve as the competition has progressed, shrugging aside the sceptics. And like Ramsey, he could be invited to the Palace when it is all over. Buckingham, that is.