Italy hung tough to win the Euro 2020 final against England at Wembley, but they’ve looked like tournament winners ever since a single moment in the quarter-finals.
Just before half-time in the quarters against Belgium, the number-one ranked team in the world, Lorenzo Insigne picked up the ball for Italy in his own half.
Italy had already wrestled control of the game off the star-studded Belgian midfield, and Nicolò Barella had given them the lead with a brilliantly taken goal.
From the moment Insigne received the ball to feet, it was obvious what he wanted to do. He’d already tried it a couple of times before.
This time it worked.
The diminutive Neapolitan looked up and headed for goal. His directness surprised the Belgians, who began to backpedal. Insigne cut inside a backtracking Youri Tielemans, put his head down, leaned back and curled a sumptuous strike into the far corner of the net.
From that instant you knew: Italy were here to play ball, and would take some stopping, having put the supposed best team in the world to the sword.
They had already blitzed the group stage, notching 3-0 wins against Turkey and Switzerland and a 1-0 win against Wales, playing the kind of swaggering, passing football that has become the hallmark of Roberto Mancini’s next-gen side.
Remember, this was a team that just three years ago failed to qualify for the World Cup, to the dismay and embarrassment of a proud footballing nation.
Mancini picked up the pieces and, using a template designed by master-coach Arrigo Sacchi, who has been overseeing Italy’s youth system since 2011, forged a bright, attacking side that looked to dominate possession, unlike the traditional Italian model built on solid defence and quick counter-attacks.
A team that can handle anything thrown at it
Romelu Lukaku scored shortly after Insigne in the Belgium game to make it 2-1, setting up a second half in which Italy could show some of their more renowned attributes: defensive prowess and gamesmanship to wind the clock down.
It had been a similar story against a determined Austria side in the round of 16, with Italy forced to grind out a result in extra time.
The biggest test was to come in the semi-finals, when Spain out-passed Mancini’s passers. But again, Italy found a way, scoring first through the wonderful Federico Chiesa then surviving a Spanish surge after Álvaro Morata scored late, to win on penalties.
What this all showed is that Italy could win whichever way they needed to: with beautiful flowing football or by smash-and-grab when being outplayed.
The side may have a fair sprinkling of youngsters, but the defensive core is the same as it’s been for more than a decade, featuring the veterans Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci.
The Juventus teammates and best friends, 36 and 34 years-old respectively, played the tournament with the relaxed air of men who have seen all the glories and heartaches football has to offer.
They pass the ball out of defence with a calm that trickles up the pitch to their teammates, and when the Italy goal is threatened, snuff out the danger with ferocity and skill.
The sight of Chiellini roaring with delight and high-fiving teammates after well-timed lunging tackles will go down in Italian football folklore.
Winning at Wembley the ultimate mark of quality
There was one ultimate test to come, of course — a final against a roaring England side, with home advantage. Once again, Mancini’s men showed all facets of their game after being shocked by an early goal.
Going behind in such a match in front of such a crowd would have crushed many sides.
Instead, Italy gradually took control.
By the time they scored through a scrappy Bonucci in the second half, they looked by far the most likely team to win. The lovely passing football was back, and England were run ragged.
The best team on the night doesn’t always win the shootout, but this time they did. The best team in the tournament, too. That’s 34 matches in a row now for the Azzurri without a loss.
Italy, and also England, for that matter, are teams on the rise. Both will be among the favourites for the World Cup in Qatar in 2022, and look likely to be among football’s superpowers for a good many years to come.
May they meet again soon in another final.