EURO 2020 final preview: Italy v. England

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It’s quite rare for the “the two best teams” to meet in the final of a major international tournament — or any knockout competition, for that matter — but that’s exactly what’s set to transpire when England face Italy at EURO 2020 on Sunday (3 pm ET).

[ MORE: How to watch England – Italy; analysis, predictions, odds ]

That’s not to say that either England or Italy walked an easy path — or the same path — to the EURO 2020 final at Wembley Stadium, as they each built their case to be crowned champions of Europe upon very different platforms.

England, for example, have hardly had to stray from home soil, playing just one of seven games outside of Wembley — at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome, coincidentally enough, for the quarterfinals — while Italy have been to London, Munich and back to London after playing all three group games in the Italian capital.

England’s path to EURO 2020 final

Gareth Southgate and Co., were worryingly slow out of the starting gate as they narrowly beat Croatia to open their EURO 2020 campaign, settled for a drab scoreless draw with rivals Scotland in game no. 2 and again did just enough to beat the Czech Republic to finish top of Group D. Three games played and only two goals scored, but, of course, not a single one conceded.

[ MORE: Football’s Coming Home? England, at home, one win away ]

Then came the group stage, and the dreaded last-16 clash with Germany, the Three Lions’ longtime boogeyman at international tournaments. Ukraine were done away with as Harry Kane roared to life and joined Raheem Sterling, arguably the player of the tournament, as only England’s second goal-scorer at EURO 2020. Denmark had “team of destiny” vibes before and during the Wednesday’s semifinal, but they, too, eventually fell in England’s wake with Kane playing the part of eventual hero.

Italy’s path to EURO 2020 final

Quite the opposite of England, Italy thrashed Turkey in the EURO 2020 curtain-raiser, did the same to eventual quarterfinalists Switzerland in game no. 2 and bested another knockout-round qualifier, Wales, to finish Group A with nine points. “Best team of the group stage” was the title bestowed upon Roberto Mancini’s side by many pundits, though they weren’t yet halfway to their ultimate goal.

[ MORE: Italy, Mancini push boundaries to reach EURO 2020 final ]

Compared to Italy’s path through the knockout rounds, it’s fair to say that England enjoyed something of a cakewalk to Sunday’s final. Austria were a tough out (in extra-time) in the round of 16; no. 1-ranked Belgium were even more formidable in the quarters; and Spain didn’t bow out without forcing a penalty shootout. The Azzurri are certainly the more battle-tested and -hardened of the two sides.

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Southgate v. Mancini

The gulf in experience between the men in charge couldn’t be much wider either, with Southgate having only ever held one as a club manager, when he was relegated at Middlesbrough 12 years ago.

In that time since Southgate last held a club job, Mancini guided Manchester City to the Premier League title and the FA Cup, as well as winning the Turkish Cup with Galatasaray. Of course, there were three Serie A titles (Inter Milan) and four Coppa Italia triumphs (two at Inter and one each at Fiorentina and Lazio) before that.

Fittingly, before dawning their now-famous waistcoats and designer suits, Southgate and Mancini reached the semifinals of the European Championship (Mancini in 1988; Southgate in 1996) in the always-famous white and blue shirts of England and Italy, respectively.

[ MORE: UEFA president Ceferin “would not support” another multi-host Euros ]

To each manager’s credit, England and Italy have undergone and showcased tactical evolutions of sorts at EURO 2020: the former adopted a much safer, defense-first platform which has seen them concede just one goal through six games; the latter now deploys a high press to wreak havoc on opposing midfields and backlines, thus affording them ample opportunity at quick counter-attacking scoring chances. The irony is not lost on anyone familiar with England and Italy over, say, the last 50 years.

There’s plenty of tortured history to be overturned as well, virtually guaranteeing legend’s status for whichever manager pops champagne bottles Sunday night in London. England have never been to the final of the European Championship and haven’t lifted a major international trophy since the 1996 World Cup, while Italy haven’t been European champions since 1968 after losing the finals in 2000 (France) and 2012 (Spain). Winning the 1982 and 2006 World Cups does make the current wait for trophies a bit more palatable, of course.

Fascinating and intriguing on a number of levels, England – Italy is undeniably a dream final for EURO 2020.

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EURO 2020 final preview: Italy v. England originally appeared on NBCSports.com