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  • Champions of Europe

    By Anthony Parente

    Azzurri 2020 UEFA European Champions
    Italians across the world celebrated as they watched the Azzurri defeat England to capture the 2020 UEFA European Football Championship. It was their second time as champions of Europe ending a 52-year drought since their first title in 1968. The event was to take place in 2020, but due to Covid it was postponed until 2021. This marked the 16th UEFA European Championship and to celebrate the 60th anniversary it was decided that this event would be held in multiple locations throughout Europe. In all, 11 countries were chosen to host matches with the semi-finals and finals to be played at Wembley Stadium in London, England.

    Just three years ago fans had to deal with the fact that the four-time World Cup Champions did not even qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup. It was dark times for the national team and truly disappointing for the fans around the world. A change was desperately needed, and the move was made to hire Roberto Mancini as the new manager. Under his guidance the team has undergone their own renaissance and going into Euro 2020 they had won 27 consecutive matches. This tournament was going to be the defining moment. Would they be able to cast the demons from not qualifying for the FIFA World Cup in 2018 aside? Could they prove to the world that Italy is back? or would it be another disappointing tournament leaving a nation wondering what has happened? The Azzurri are back and are currently sporting a 34-match unbeaten streak.

    Italy started Euro 2020 in Group A along with Switzerland, Turkey, and Wales. They kicked off play against Turkey on June 11, 2021, in Italy at Rome's Stadio Olimpico, where Italy played all their group A matches. It was clear from the start that this team was different under the guidance of Mancini. They seemed to attack more when they possessed the ball making quick decisions getting the ball to their playmakers. On defense they pressed opposing teams causing them to make quick decisions forcing the opposition into turnovers. Italy defeated Turkey 3 - 0 with goals from Demiral, Immobile and Insigne. It was a good start for the Azzurri. They possessed the ball for 61% of the time and had 24 attempts on net to only three for Turkey. The second match of group play was against Switzerland. The Azzurri were not as dominate in time of possession (49%) or attempts for and against (13 - 6), nonetheless they defeated Switzerland 3 - 0 with two goals from Locatelli and one from Immobile. After two wins Italy was assured of first place in the group and booked a place in the knockout stage. Their final match in group play was against Wales. Normally when teams are already guaranteed a spot in the next round, they will make changes and not play an over-aggressive style as they do not want to risk injury. Italy dominated the time of possession (63%) and out attempted Wales 23 - 3. A goal in the first half by Pessina was all the Azzurri needed. Italy finished undefeated in group play and outscoring their opponents seven to zero.

    People still had doubts about the Italian team. Patrick Vieira, former player on the French national team, stated: "I believe that they lack intensity, lack power, pace, to be even more dangerous going forward, so I'm still going to wait." Former French national team goalie Fabien Barthez was quick to downplay the Italian team's success in group play saying, "Italy are yet to play against anyone important, and won't go far in the tournament." Personally, I believe they are still upset over losing to the Azzurri in the 2006 FIFA World Cup finals. Even though they had success in group play they needed to prove to themselves and the rest of the world that this team was different. In the round of 16 Italy faced Austria, the second-place team from Group C, at Wembley Stadium in London, England. This match was literally the tale of two halves. The first half Italy was on the attack but could not score. The second half Austria flipped the script, and they were the aggressive team, but like the Italians they could not get a goal. At the end of regulation, it was scoreless. The teams would play two additional 15-minute halves. The first 15 minutes was dominated by the Azzurri, and they were rewarded with goals from Chiesa and Pessina. With the two-goal lead to start the second half of extra time Italy allowed Austria to dictate play and eventually conceded their first goal in the tournament. A late fury by Austria came up short as the Azzurri moved on with a 2 - 1 victory.

    As you move on the teams get better and this was the case in their next opponent. In the quarter-finals Italy faced off against Belgium, the current number one team in the FIFA world rankings, at Allianz Arena in Munich, Germany. The Azzurri came out with a purpose to show that they were for real getting goals from Barella and Insigne in the first half. It looked like the Azzurri was going to go into the half with a 2 - 0 lead, but a late challenge in the penalty area earned the Belgians a penalty kick which they converted giving them momentum going into the half. In the second half the Belgians had numerous chances. They looked as though they had the equalizer, but the thigh of Spinazzola from Italy sent the would-be goal wide of the post. Italy defeated the number one team in the world 2 - 1 earning a spot in the semi-finals against Spain.

    Spain dictated the play for most of the game making it difficult for Italy to maintain possession and create any significant chances. It remained scoreless at halftime. It was the same pressure from Spain to start the second-half. A save by Donnarumma, the Italian goalkeeper, who quickly played the ball ahead and quick passing sent the ball ahead as Chiesa picked up a deflected ball from the Spanish defender inside the box, made a move to his right and curled a shot into the upper right corner of the net. The play only took 13 seconds from the time Donnarumma made his save to the time Chiesa finished it off with a goal. When Italy was successful this was how they played. It was not going to be easy the rest of the way as Spain showed their talent and made a beautiful run through the Italian defense and scored to tie the match before the end of regulation. Neither team scored during extra time and the fate of both teams moving on the finals came down to penalty kicks. Each team would get 5 kicks. After four attempts by both teams Italy was ahead 3 - 2. They had one shot remaining and it was up to Jorginho. He made his approach and the goalie guessed wrong as Jorginho calmly kicked Italy into the finals.

    The finals tested the Azzurri once again as they faced England on their home soil in front of over 60,000 fans in attendance. It only took England two minutes to score the opening goal. It was the first time in the tournament Italy did not score the first goal. The Azzurri struggled as they could not get to their style of play. It looked as though they would never break through the English defense. After England took the early lead, they played more of a defensive style. Eventually the Azzurri were able to breakthrough and score the tying goal off a shot that hit Pickford, the English goalkeeper, then the goal post before landing on the foot of Bonucci who kicked it passed a sliding English defender. Like the semi-finals the championship would be decided by penalty kicks. On Italy's second attempt Pickford made a beautiful save giving England the advantage, which they capitalized on to go up 2 - 1. It did not look promising for the Azzurri. They kept their composure and scored on their next two attempts as they watched England hit one off the goal post and Donnarumma knocking the other away on a diving save to his left. The Azzurri had the lead 3 - 2 after four rounds with the ball once again on the foot of Jorginho to crown Italy as champions. Pickford would make one last stand for England as he dove to his right just getting enough of the ball to cause it to hit the goal post and give the English team and fans one last opportunity to tie and force sudden death. Donnarumma stood tall and as the ball was struck you saw him diving to his left, hands reaching out knocking the ball away and crowning Italy as Champions of Europe and Donnarumma was awarded Player of the Tournament.

    Watching this team play during this tournament felt different. Yes, there were times where they would give you a heart attack as they either defended their lead or struggled to get to their game and the opposing team would have chance after chance. Once they got to their game you could tell this was not the same style of play. They seemed more aggressive making quick decisions on offense. Not holding on to the ball and getting players in open areas so they could create and push the ball forward. On defense they did not sit back as they pressed, forcing teams to make quick decisions that often ended in the Azzurri taking possession. It was not an easy road to victory as they faced some challenges and had to adjust. They showed their spirit and will to overcome any obstacles they faced.

    To the Azzurri, Thank You! You have made Italians all over the world and a Nation proud!

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