By Santu Mukherjee & Debarshee Samanta
With England and Italy gearing up for the UEFA Euro 2021 Final, excitements are at an all-time high. Here’s a preview of the upcoming match between the two behemoths of European football.
In the beginning, England under coach Gareth Southgate was surely considered the favorites, but that expectation creates a different level of pressure altogether in such high voltage tournaments. The first setback for England was the injury that pushed Liverpool’s unorthodox playmaker Trent Alexander Arnold out of the tournament. The injury of Harry Maguire created panic as well for a brief period of time. But this is where the current England team stands apart. There is absolutely no shortage of talented players in the squad, which made the job of Southgate much easier throughout the tournament. England’s Premier League, where even the “small teams” have the capability to win against major clubs, is much more competitive than the other leagues. And this is a crucial reason behind the generation of a pool of talented players who are picked up at a young age from different academies and given the chance to play against major names. Many players, like Marcus Rashford, Jack Grealish, Declan Rice, in the current England team are a product of their respective academies. So, it was a healthy challenge to finalize the best squad that England had before the start of the tournament.
England’s group in the Euro consisted of Scotland, Czech Republic, and Croatia, the runner’s up of the previous World Cup. The group was somewhere in the middle, not too easy, not too tough. But the talent-packed England team’s performance was not up to the mark initially in the group stage. They managed two very simple wins against Croatia and the Czech Republic, and a draw against Scotland. In spite of having star strikers like Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling, England had only two goals in the group stage, which was the lowest amongst the teams that qualified for the Knockout. But at the same time, they are the sole team to consider only one goal in the whole tournament, which proves their defensive prowess.
In the Knockout Stage, England was up against Germany, Ukraine and Denmark. While the general view was that, unlike Germany, the other two were not formidable enough, it was quite the opposite. England beat Germany, 2-0 in the pre-Quarter Final, Ukraine, 4-0 in the Quarter Final and finally beat Denmark, 2-1 to reach the Final and create history. This is England’s first major final since 1966 and maiden European Championship Final, and Southgate deserves the credit.
Gareth Southgate took charge of the English team after its miserable performance in the 2014 FIFA World Cup and then the loss against Iceland in the 2016 Euro Cup. Just after taking the baton, England reached the Semis in the 2018 World Cup. The last time they were there was back in 1990. Under this person, England emerged as the favorite in this tournament giving English fans the much-awaited opportunity to finally chant “It’s Coming Home”. This team under Gareth Southgate is progressing towards something that even the golden generation of David Beckham, Steven Gerard, Frank Lampard, John Terry, Wayne Rooney could not achieve.
In 1996, it was Southgate’s missed penalty in the Euro Semis which broke the English dream, but now after 55 years, it is Southgate who has managed and led the team efficiently to the big stage. It is indeed quite a comeback, rare in the history of football
On the other side stands four-time World Champion and one time Euro Champion, Italy. But these statistics are a thing of the past now. There was a time when players would look forward to playing in the Italian League or the Italian clubs would dominate Europe, but the team which won the 2006 World Cup by conceding only two goals, vanished in thin air. They reached the 2012 Euro Final, but could not win it. Then, the downfall of Italy started when slowly the greats started retiring but no attention was paid to nurture the next generation. As a result, it bid farewell from the group stage of the 2014 World Cup.
After this, Antonio Conte who was coming in after coaching Juventus through a successful tournament win took charge of the Italian team and Italy reached the Quarter-Final of the 2016 Euro Cup. But when Conte resigned and the inexperienced Gian Piero Ventura was trusted with the responsibility, the structure started crumbling again and Italy could not even qualify for the main stage of the 2018 World Cup. This was the first time, since 1958, that Italy was not seen playing the World Cup and for the four-time World champions it was naturally quite humiliating.
After this disastrous result, it was no surprise that Ventura was made to step aside and Roberto Mancini, the manager under whom Manchester City won its first league title, was entrusted with the responsibility of restructuring the Italian team. It would be fair to say that Mancini who transformed the team completely and Italy which was once known for its solid defence now started dominating its opponents with a new brand of attacking play. On one hand, there were experienced players like Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci and alongside he also groomed young players like Manuel Locatelli, Federico Chiesa. Mancini’s Italy has qualified for this year’s Euro Final by winning all the matches in the qualification stage.
Italy’s group in Euro consisted of Switzerland, Turkey and Wales. In the group stage, Italy scored 7 goals and did not concede any goal. In the Knockout Stage, it was a faceoff with Austria, Belgium and Spain, where Italy defeated Austria in Extra Time and won by a penalty against Spain. But compared to the formidable performance in the Group Stage, the team looked rather shaky in the Knockout.
This Euro Cup Final is special because it is about two teams and their resilient journey through tough times. Just like a Phoenix, both these teams have emerged from ashes, and these journeys, hard work make Football so special. Today, the two teams stand at the doorstep of their dreamland, and may the better team win!