Content Editor at Free Super Tips, Alex was born in the shadow of Old Trafford and is an avid Man Utd fan. After graduating from university he combined his love of football, writing and betting to join FST and now closely follows goings-on in all of the top European leagues.
Two nations will come to a standstill on Sunday night and, while both can be considered footballing superpowers in their own right, if you rolled the clock back four years and told any supporter of either team that this was on the horizon they might have laughed you out of the room.
Four years ago Italy had just failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup – their first failure to qualify for a major tournament since 1992 – and were in transition following an ill-fated spell under Gian Piero Ventura.
England were in a more stable situation but Gareth Southgate – appointed in 2016 after Sam Allardyce’s ridiculously brief spell in charge – was yet to be truly tested and there was plenty of doubt surrounding the former Middlesbrough manager’s quality.
That all changed in the balmy summer of 2018 as Southgate led the Three Lions to their first major tournament semi-final since 1996. He followed that up with another semi-final appearance in the inaugural edition of the UEFA Nations League but that elusive final proved beyond him.
Until now, that is.
But Italy still stand in England’s way and their transformation over the last few years has been no less impressive. The Euro 2020 Final will be a thrilling chapter in a book about how two managers completely changed the culture of their national teams for the better.
Mancini rebuilds Azzurri from the ground up
Cast your mind back to the beginning of Euro 2020 and many pundits were touting Italy as the dark horses of the tournament. Whether you can class an 8/1 ante-post shot as a dark horse is questionable at best but the optimistic outlook has certainly come to fruition.
It’s hardly a surprise, though. Roberto Mancini is a genuinely world-class manager and in his three years in charge he has put up better stats than any other Commissario Tecnico in history.
No previous manager with more than five games on their record has a higher win percentage (73.68%) than Mancini and it’s not like he’s been blessed with a golden generation.
Four players – Chiellini, Bonucci, Jorginho and Immobile – started in both the game in which they failed to qualify for the World Cup and the game in which they beat Spain to reach the Euro 2020 Final. It would have been five had Florenzi not been injured earlier in the tournament.
He’s not just relied on the old guard, though. Mancini has handed no less than 35 players their debuts for Italy and the likes of Federico Chiesa, Nicolo Barella, Manuel Locatelli, Pietro Pellegri, Sandro Tonalo and Nicolo Zaniolo promise a bright future for this new-look Azzurri.
Italy’s resurgence can be classed as a tactical victory and a masterclass in changing mindset.
Mancini isn’t the only one changing mindsets, though.
The sky is the limit for Southgate’s young Lions
2016 was a bleak year to be an English football fan. The Three Lions crashed out of Euro 2016 at the hands of tournament debutants Iceland and Roy Hodgson’s subsequent exit gave way to the debacle of Sam Allardyce’s 67-day reign.
It’s hardly a surprise that Gareth Southgate’s temporary appointment was met with raised eyebrows. The former England international’s only previous top-level job ended in him getting the sack after his Middlesbrough side were relegated. He showed some promise in the Under-21 setup but this was a huge step up for him.
I think it’s safe to say that he rose to that challenge.
Like Mancini, the main driving force behind England’s improvement has been the culture change brought about by Southgate and his team. The prima donnas of yesteryear complaining of too-plump pillows and drifting around in twos and threes with their clubmates are gone, replaced by a squad with a genuine feeling of togetherness.
Jordan Henderson’s goal against Ukraine was the perfect example. Fitness concerns have seen him displaced from the starting lineup but there was no sense of entitlement as the vice-captain nodded in from a corner to put England 4-0 up. The only emotion there was pure joy from himself and all his teammates both on and off the pitch.
In fact, every goal England have scored this tournament has sparked wild celebrations from the bench. These lads really want each other to succeed. They want to do it for themselves, for each other, for their manager and for the fans. They actually care.
What does the future hold? Who can say for sure. We’ve had so-called golden generations before, all seemingly doomed to crumble under the pressure and end their careers without that elusive international medal.
This squad has youth on its side and all the talent you could ever ask for and, if England do lose on Sunday, I don’t think it will be because they crumbled under the pressure. It will be because they were beaten by the better team on the night, and the same goes for the Azzurri.
Whatever the outcome at Wembley, both Italy and England can end the tournament with their heads held high and knowing a whole nation is truly proud of them.
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