Italy vs England in the Euro 2020 final. Pinch yourselves and you will realise this is not a dream. And yes it did take cruel penalties for Italy to scrape through. Yes, it did take a reprobate Raheem Sterling plunge for England to join them. But at Wembley on Sunday night, it will be Azzuri versus Lion, Italy versus England. Fairy tale versus fairy tale and dark horse versus imploder. This was a final not meant to be. This is a final that will be. And it is harsh for Denmark. Theirs will remain a destiny unfulfilled. The tournament will remember them as more than a football team. They were heroes. Their names will forever be etched in history and their reputations forever enhanced.
But this is all about Italy vs England in the Euro 2020 final. At Wembley no less. There is great history to this ground. An almost love hate relationship with the English. And as is with everything English, the aggressive press has created a hype of the occasion. It is an unmissable festival now. In England, there is a blockbuster story in every turn. And the seemingly ordinary is world class. This is, after all, the land where 100 million pounds is Declan Rice's value. And he is rumoured by the papers to replace Jorginho. An Italian with no hype. No three digit price tag. But clearly the tournament's midfield metronome.
This is England. Here, everything means more!
Euro 2020 final: at the expense of real heroes
Except that penalty call. That probably means nothing. There is no press, no shaming and no controversy. England got the rub of the green and that was the end of it. Football can be very cruel sometimes. And Denmark felt the wrath of British progression. That penalty call being a memorabilia that could find place alongside the museum of dubious officiating.
As Sterling fell slyly and uninitiated, Denmark only rose in the hearts and minds of the onlooking world. It was an exasperating and shameful end to a heroic campaign. Bravado that did not limit itself to the pitch or football. Courage that saved a human life. Character to compete by putting aside uncertainty of their brother's life. Denmark have embodied everything we seek through sports. Valour, spirit, mental fortitude and skill.
And their exit makes you question justice in football. It perhaps is like the times we are living in. Harsh and cold. But, the truth is, this Denmark team does not need any trophy as validation. In fact, no trophy can ever validate their contribution to this tournament. They are champions already. Euro champions are ephemeral, Denmark shall remain on the summit forever.
Euro 2020 final: comebacks and fulfillments
For Italy and England, however, the validation is necessary. There are plenty of heartwarming stories in their ranks too. Not least those of Luke Shaw and Gianluca Vialli.
The England left back long seemed lost and one could almost sense tales being written about him of unfulfilled potential. However, as outsiders, we often overlook the lives of players between weekends. It is easy to forget they are as human as everyone else. The only difference is - they are very good at playing ball. Shaw's journey in this Euro has been no less than inspirational. He had suffered a double leg break as a 20-year-old. The images of his leg, bent in a way that no human body part ever should, would scare even the most stoic.
He returned from a long layoff only to find his new manager calling him "dramatically bad" and his good performances a consequence of the manager's "mind". Toxic workplace really. He fought through those difficult years, mentally and physically, when it so often seemed his love for the game would dwindle. And today, he is one of England's elite players leading them to an unprecedented final. The crescendo, of course, was achieved in Rome on the day of Jose Mourinho's arrival at his new club. Two assists and a breathtaking display to exhibit his excellence to the city. And, at the same time, show how totally south things can go with the once charming Portuguese.
You could not begrudge Shaw's journey ending in triumph.
Euro 2020 final: Vialli and Mancini's bond
And then there is Vialli and his reunion with old friend Roberto Mancini. The duo had been inseparable since they were kids. Both had opposite upbringings. They were even at the opposite ends of the talent spectrum. But, fate would have them combine as 20 year olds to hand Sampdoria their first ever Coppa Italia in 1984 against Franco Baresi's Milan. That would be the start of an illustrious partnership that saw them win two more Coppa Italias, one Cup Winners Cup and even the Scudetto in 1990-91.
After their playing days, the two went separate ways. And nearly 30 years later, they came together again when Mancini brought Vialli back into his Italian coaching staff. And it was an emotional move. Vialli was publicly battling cancer at the time and it greatly moved the now Chief Delegate. Vialli, now in remission, recollects Mancini's words. "We are growing old but working together will keep us young".
It is a moving bond between the two. One brother and hero the other! And you can never ever begrudge Vialli's crescendo ending in triumph either.
Euro 2020 final: the tactics of England
But, so is the nature of the beast that only one man will wear gold around his neck. Only one can kiss the trophy. The other, no less champion, will only watch on with longing.
Football is often a game of dare. It is who dares and who blinks. But, Southgate at England, has found a way not to completely dare and yet prosper. His own way, wise from prior heartbreaks. Southgate is a measured, cultured, pragmatic and empathetic coach. Ruthless in his own way. And perhaps his greatest ally is his deafness to media clamour. Start Grealish, where is Sancho, play Rashford and unleash Foden.
But England have gone their own way. Declan Rice sits while Kalvin Phillips parkours around the field. They have an imbalanced full back relationship. When one attacks, the other stays back. Shaw has been the advanced option while Walker, with his stupendous recovery pace guards against quick counters. Kane drops deeper than even a striker with a False 9 role should and is yet only one goal off the tournament's Golden Boot.
England's left winger - Sterling always - drifts in-field to occupy the position vacated by Kane. And the winger on the right hand side is tasked with making incisive movements that cut through opponent defences.
Euro 2020 final England Predicted 11: Jordan Pickford; Kyle Walker, John Stones, Harry Maguire, Luke Shaw; Declan Rice, Kalvin Phillips; Raheem Sterling, Mason Mount, Bukayo Saka; Harry Kane.
Euro 2020 final: the tactics of Italy
While England's midfield is functional, Italy's is the team's beating heart. And at its centre lies the metronome Jorginho. He has been a personification of calm. In the hullabaloo of central traffic, the game slows down for him. His ice cool vision of the game was symbolized by the dismissively non-chalant penalty to extend Italy's Wembley stay.
Around Jorginho, Italy possess willing workers. They complement Jorginho's intelligent passing and clever positioning. There is the quarterback Verratti, who is similarly effective at dictating pace as the Chelsea man. And the tireless Barella, who despite Locatelli and Pessina scoring goals, has kept his place in the team.
Insigne and Chiesa have also scored for Italy. The former is Italy's equivalent to Raheem Sterling, bar the theatrics. Chiesa, meanwhile, has the ability to think and execute at equal speed. His goals against Austria and Spain belies his age. There are plenty many in this Italian side who have belied age. For example, the defensive pair of Bonucci and Chiellini in a manner quite opposite to Chiesa. While Chiesa's exploits make him seem old enough to sport heavy beard, the performances of his team's venerable centrebacks would make them quite in place sporting an adolescent stubble.
And in a humorous sine curve of coming of age and ageless, Italy's goal is marshalled by a Gianluigi who was only born in 1999. Donnarumma, soon at Paris, is probably the best young goalkeeper at the moment.
Euro 2020 final Italy Predicted 11: Gianluigi Donnarumma; Giovanni Di Lorenzo, Leonardo Bonucci, Giorgio Chiellini, Emerson; Jorginho, Marco Verratti, Nicolo Barella; Lorenzo Insigne, Ciro Immobile, Federico Chiesa.
Euro 2020 final: football and fleeting felicity
Despite the footballing ability of both sides, the game Verratti believes, will be won and lost in the mind. A game of the torso decided by the visceral. Such is the inherent contradiction in our game. And this contradiction spills over to how we perceive football. A source of bliss and yet so grotesquely over-rated in that this felicity is only but fleeting.
Football gives so much to revel in but it never really is permanent or lasting. The role of football in society really is overstated and almost illusory. An imperfect sport with its myriad grim agonies. But, what in society is truly valuable? And in that moment of hollow realisation, football still has the power to unite. To excite and be the bright light under the dark sky. It never soothes any pain but it is the anesthesia to reality. And eventually, even if for a fleeting moment, makes you believe in love.
So, it is okay to forget reality and to lose yourself. Whether Italian or English or just some ordinary person who loves this game, it is absolutely fine to submit yourself for 90 minutes, or 120. To watch a game of football, the Euro 2020 final or any other, and imagine it to be an articulation of life. And feel full of life.
So unbosom yourself and indulge. Confide in the beautiful game and find your expression by losing yourself to the hyperbolic disenchantment of football under the Wembley skies!