Football is almost home. England are just one match from glory and ending what is now 55 years of hurt. Standing in their way is no small obstacle as they take on a strong Italian side looking to prolong the hurt…
Coming into this tournament there was not much of a furore around Italy; all of the talk was about the French, the Portuguese and so on. Yet the evidence was there that Roberto Mancini had transformed this team into a well-oiled machine who were on a run of almost 30 matches unbeaten. After the humiliating low-point of failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, the ex-City manager picked up the pieces and in doing so stripped away the ageing squad which he inherited and an age-old Italian football philosophy. In came an influx of raw but exciting young players who were instructed to shift away from the traditionally defensive Italian style of play in favour of a fast and direct approach.
Legendary centre-back pairing Chiellini and Bonucci still marshal the defence and will give Harry Kane a torrid time if nothing else as they sacrifice it all for the cause. In midfield they have classy ball-playing midfielders in Jorginho and Verrati who these days tend to try riskier, more creative ideas as they look for their pacey frontmen – Chiesa, Immobile and Insigne.
Team selection-wise, there shouldn’t be too many changes expected from Gareth Southgate who has more or less started the same team for each game with the exception of perhaps one position being rotated. Said position is one of the attacking roles given the ridiculous wealth of talent available including Jadon Sancho and Phil Foden to name but two. Bukayo Saka only came into this squad after an injury to Trent Alexander-Arnold however he took the chance given to him by his manager and incredibly now appears to be the preferred choice. If it is he who is selected then he’ll line up alongside England’s two star players in Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane who have almost carried the team to the final. Both have been in outstanding match-winning form and in fact are both in the running for the golden boot so will once again be the dangermen to the opposition. Sterling has 3 goals to his name whilst his strike partner has 4 – one behind Cristiano Ronaldo – and will be aiming to become the first player since Gerd Müller (1970 & 1972) to win the prize at consecutive major tournaments.
In the last-16 tie with Germany, Southgate opted to match his opponents like-for-like in setting up in a 3-5-2 formation which could well be repeated here particularly as like the Germans, Italy threatens with pace up front. Kyle Walker has remarkable speed for a defender and could be seen sweeping up whenever the Danes broke past Maguire & Stones on Wednesday night so it makes sense for him to play more centrally rather than full-back.
Looking at the stats we can see that England are undefeated in 15 out of their previous 17 matches at Wembley, scoring 46 and conceding only 5. Meanwhile, Italy are now on an incredible run of 33 matches unbeaten and are riding on a wave of confidence. Without a doubt, this tie will be tense, hard-fought and most likely will be decided by the odd goal as it would appear that both these teams could hardly be more closely matched.