England lost the Euro 2020 final 3-2 on penalties after a 1-1 draw with Italy; Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka missed their spot-kicks; Gareth Southgate got key decisions wrong but England's tournament shows the future is bright
Monday 12 July 2021 02:15, UK
It started in the best way imaginable. A goal after 115 seconds. An eruption of joy around Wembley. From one wing-back to the other, Gareth Southgate had got it right again. It felt like England's night.
But Southgate knows better than anyone just how cruel this sport can be and around three hours after the elation of that opening goal, his players found out for themselves.
Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka missed their penalties and Italy began their celebrations. Another oh-so-near for England - and one that feels particularly painful.
Perhaps that's because of just how much promise this group has shown.
England had reached their first final in 55 years - their first final since the final - and they had done it with a blend of thrilling youth and battling spirit. This side were different. They had brought back belief.
That belief was coursing through both players and fans for much of the first half at Wembley. Luke Shaw's goal prompted wild celebrations and England looked in the mood for more.
Italy could not get a handle on Harry Kane's movement into midfield. They were overwhelmed by Luke Shaw and Kieran Trippier's rampaging runs up the flanks. They were rattled by Raheem Sterling's pace through the middle.
Every act of English resistance drew raucous cheers. Supporters roared with delight as Harry Maguire shoved Federico Chiesa off the ball. They screamed Trippier on as he sprinted after Emerson, forcing a panicked clearance into the stands.
Italy, so composed on their route to the final, were becoming increasingly frustrated. Southgate's unexpected formation change had flummoxed them and England, despite being the younger of the two sides, were playing with greater resilience and maturity.
Quite why they surrendered the initiative so rapidly in the second half is not entirely clear.
England had started it strongly enough, with Sterling bursting into the Italy box and calling for a penalty that wasn't given. But soon the momentum changed and England sank deeper and deeper.
Italy's equaliser arrived midway through the second period and by that point, the pressure had already started building. England could not get close to Italy's midfielders, with Marco Verratti allowed to dictate the game. Further forwards, Chiesa came to life.
The equalising goal, turned home by Leonardo Bonucci, came from a set piece but England's biggest problems were unfolding in open play. They could not get the ball and on the rare occasions they did, it seemed they didn't know what to do with it.
Kane and Sterling, having caused Italy so many problems in the first half, found themselves shackled and staved of service and extra-time brought more of the same as the game headed for penalties.
Questions will be asked of how Southgate managed it.
His late substitutions worked out well against Denmark in the semi-final. When the Danes began to tire, he could still turn to his bench to freshen England up. He even had the personnel in reserve to change his system. But this time it felt like he waited too long.
Jack Grealish had little time to make an impact having only come on in the first half of extra time, while throwing on Sancho and Rashford in the final minute of the game gave them little opportunity to settle into it before taking their spot-kicks.
They duly missed and so of course did Saka, the youngest player on the pitch at only 19 years old and yet the one entrusted to take England's decisive fifth penalty. Southgate took full responsibility for that decision but he knows it's Saka who must now live with it.
Southgate will wonder how he might have done things differently but the outcome of the final, however crushing it is, does not change all the good work he and his players have done at this tournament.
England reached the final having only conceded one goal in seven games. They reached the final having overcome their old rivals Germany along the way. They reached the final having brought the nation together behind them.
Attitudes towards the national team have been transformed. Enjoyment has replaced disinterest. And while it will take time to put the disappointment of another heart-breaking penalty shootout defeat behind us, the future looks brighter than it has for a long time.
England entered Euro 2020 with the third-youngest squad at the tournament. It is cruel that three of their young stars were the ones to miss their spot-kicks but there is enough talent in England's rank to suggest this will not be their last final.
There is enough evidence to suggest Southgate is capable of leading them one step further too. His tenure has been a story of steady progress since his appointment in 2016 and every decision he made up until the final was vindicated.
The last hurdle proved slightly too high but there is no shame in defeat to a side of Italy's quality and experience. Perhaps Southgate should have done a few things differently. Perhaps England should have shown more ambition to build on their lead. But there will surely be other opportunities for that. This tournament has shown us that England are heading in the right direction.
It was penalty shootout heartbreak again for England and Gareth Southgate in a crushing Euro 2020 final defeat to Italy.
Alice Piper is joined by Pete Smith and Gerard Brand to reflect on a dramatic Euro 2020 final, with England unable to mark their progress with the silverware.