I wasn’t born when England last played in the final of a major tournament. I don’t know whether it says something about my youthfulness but it says a lot about England’s acquaintance with success in recent times. Be that as it may; England have a chance to consign their wretched history, … well, to history when they take on Italy for the priciest prize in football in Europe. My hunch is Italy will be crowned champions but I’m no Nostradamus.
Wembley is going to witness an intriguing final between two teams that neutral fans loved to hate not long ago. England and Italy are winners even before the referee blows the whistle for kick-off on Sunday because the same neutral fans cannot possibly hate either of them now. I had already tweeted my stance: I will be happy if the Azzurri win but will not be sad if the Three Lions are victorious.
England might feel confident after seeing the way Spain troubled Italy in the semi-final. Italy scraped through the litmus test on penalties. More important, England aren’t Spain in keeping possession. Endless passing isn’t an English thing either. Instead of copying Spain’s blue print, Gareth Southgate’s side must trust their own instincts. Nothing succeeds in life as well as football than originality.
Playing in front of their boisterous fans is an advantage for England who had won the World Cup — their only success in a major event — on home soil 55 years ago. There is a feeling of liberation among English supporters because the fear of failure that used to grip their team is gone now. But the final will test the mettle of Harry Kane and Co.
Over-reliance on Kane and Raheem Sterling for goals might spell trouble for England because the Italians would have done a defensive thesis on how to stop the two by now. Apart from Kane and Sterling, only two other players had been on target for the hosts while five different players have two goals apiece for their opponents. Italy are more of a team than England. Having lost their two previous finals in the Euros (2000 & 2012), the Azzurri appear ready to make amends.
Federico Chiesa on the right and Lorenzo Insigne on the left will be crucial for Roberto Mancini’s side. Both can bend the ball from distance to trouble England’s goalkeeper Jordan Pickford who looked ill at ease against Denmark in the semi-final. Italy’s solidity in midfield should help them edge England who lack a world-class creator in the middle. There is no better game than this one for neutral fans. No football fan worth his/her salt should miss the final.
England: Raheem Sterling: His place in the startling XI was questioned at the start; an English side without his name is unthinkable now. Without his effervescence, England would not have progressed this far.
Italy: Federico Chiesa: The Juventus forward wasn’t a starter early on; but he has cemented his place in the starting XI with two vital goals in the knockout stage. Chiesa has the X Factor.
Formation: England: 4-2-3-1. Italy: 4-3-3
(The writer has reported the Fifa World Cup from South Africa, Brazil and Italy)