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Chiellini and Bonucci get the glory their careers deserve as Southgate's defensive tactics fail to pay off

Plus, the best team won, but did the superior squad lose?

Italy's Giorgio Chiellini.
Italy's Giorgio Chiellini.
Image: PA

1. Chiellini and Bonucci get the glory their careers deserve

EVEN THE most ardent England fan would surely find it hard to begrudge Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini their moment of joy.

At 34 and 36 respectively, they would be forgiven for suspecting until recently that their chance to win a major tournament had gone.

They had come close before — the duo represents the only survivors from the starting XI of the Italy side that reached the Euro 2012 final.

That occasion turned out to be decidedly anti-climactic, as they were comprehensively beaten 4-0 by Spain.

Nearly a decade on, they are older and perhaps wiser.

Both were magnificent, and it was Bonucci who scored the all-important equaliser after 67 minutes for their eventual penalty shootout victory against the Three Lions.

Throughout the tournament, their inspirational leadership drove the Azzurri on.

Bonucci started every game, while Chiellini picked up an injury against Switzerland, missing the wins over Wales and Austria, before recovering to deliver a series of outstanding displays.

As well as the 2012 Spain defeat, they have suffered plenty of heartbreak at club level too, losing Champions League finals in 2015 and 2017, though the eight and nine Serie A titles they have respectively won undoubtedly serve as ample compensation for the perennial European disappointments.

The fact that the pair have kept going for so long at the highest level is a testament to their character and resilience — they are the perfect role models for any youngster who seeks to play professionally.

And Sunday night was a fitting reward for their remarkable perseverance.

2. Southgate’s defensive tactics fail to pay off

Overall, Gareth Southgate has done an excellent job with the English team.

When you consider where they were at the last Euros, getting knocked out by Iceland, he has transformed them from a virtual laughing stock into one of the most formidable sides in world football.

The ex-Middlesbrough boss has also made some astute decisions that have contributed to England’s success at this tournament.

Sticking with Raheem Sterling — who endured a difficult season at Man City — proved an inspired choice, as the 26-year-old was arguably the player of the tournament.

Playing with two defensive midfielders in Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips worked more often than not.

Similarly going with three at the back against a technically superior side proved beneficial against Germany, as they ran out deserved 2-0 winners.

But at the tournament’s climax, Italy were the better team for the majority of the contest.

While you need some good fortune to prevail on penalties, the stats highlight the Azzurri’s superiority over the course of the 120 minutes.

They had 66% possession, 19 shots compared with six, six on target versus two.

And as solid as England looked defensively in the first half, their negative tactics after a brilliant opening 25 minutes contributed to their downfall ultimately.

The Three Lions were worn down gradually and it was no surprise when the Italians deservedly equalised.

Southgate’s side seldom threatened thereafter, and they could never fully emerge from the overly defensive mindset they had adopted after a scintillating opening few minutes.

In the end, it felt like penalties was their only realistic chance of triumphing, but it was the Italians that held their nerve as they were rewarded for a more adventurous approach eventually.

Questions will also be asked of Southgate’s substations — replacing the impressive Declan Rice when Kalvin Phillips appeared shattered seemed odd.

And equally, waiting until the last minute to introduce Jadon Sancho and Marcus Rashford, who both went on to miss their penalties, was also an ill-advised decision, particularly when you consider that England could have done with fresh legs long before then.

Consequently, in the battle between Southgate and Italy boss Roberto Mancini — perhaps the most important rivalry of this contest — the winner was clear.

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3. The best team won but the superior squad lost

If you were to look at every country’s squad at this Euros and pick the best one prior to the start of the tournament, not many people would have selected Italy as their preferred choice.

England arguably have more depth in their 26-man panel, and you could probably make a case for France, Spain, Germany, Belgium and possibly even Portugal having better players to choose from overall.

Yet none of those rival sides are in the midst of a 34-match unbeaten run and while Italy may not have had the wealth of talent to pick from, they are surely the best team that have taken to the field over the past couple of weeks.

Much of the credit must go to Roberto Mancini. He has moulded a group of players who had suffered the humiliation of not qualifying for the 2018 World Cup under caretaker manager Luigi Di Biagio and turned them into a brilliant unit, playing an attractive and atypical (for an Italian team) style of football that has earned them many admirers.

Yet, at the same time, the talent of the team should not be downplayed too much.

In Gianluigi Donnarumma, so imposing in the penalty shootout last night, they possess arguably the best goalkeeper in the world.

And Leonardo Spinazzola is surely one of the best full-backs, though unfortunately missed the latter stages of the tournament after rupturing his achilles.

Bonucci and Chiellini’s qualities have already been highlighted above, while their midfield, whether it’s Jorginho, Nicolò Barella, Marco Verratti or Manuel Locatelli is as strong as any team in the tournament.

While the likes of Federico Chiesa and Lorenzo Insigne are gifted players, they are still a little light up front and that weakness in attack almost cost them dearly on Sunday night. In particular, during a lacklustre first half, they looked toothless in the final third for the most part.

A true out-and-out goalscorer in the manner of Harry Kane is the one missing piece in the jigsaw puzzle and Mancini will surely be desperate to find that player ahead of next year’s World Cup.

4. England will go again after an especially tough night for Saka, Rashford and Sancho

Gareth Southgate knows exactly how it feels to miss a crucial penalty.

Back in 1996, the England manager’s inaccurate spot-kick saw the Three Lions exit the Euros at the hands of Germany at Wembley in heartbreaking circumstances somewhat reminiscent of last night.

It was no surprise therefore to hear him offer words of solace for Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka, all of whom did not score with their attempts in the shootout.

“That it is down to me,” Southgate told the BBC afterwards.

“I decided on the penalty takers based on what we had done in training and nobody is on their own.

“We have won together as a team and it is absolutely on all of us in terms of not being able to win the game tonight.

“In terms of the penalties, that is my call and totally rests with me.”

You would hope the three players in question don’t suffer unduly for the remainder of the career because of Sunday evening’s unfortunate events.

Perhaps the one consolation is that in Southgate, they have the ideal coach with the leadership skills and emotional intelligence to guide them through what is likely to be a difficult period.

What’s also worth pointing out is that although England may have been defeated on Sunday, their run at the Euros is further evidence that they now have an underage system that is the envy of most countries in the world.

Expect them to be a force for the foreseeable future, with better days ahead likely for immensely talented starlets such as Phil Foden, Mason Mount and Declan Rice.

About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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