Having taken over Italy at their lowest ebb, Roberto Mancini revelled in defying expectations after the Azzurri made it through to the final of Euro 2020 with a dramatic penalty shoot-out win over Spain on Tuesday.
Italy’s transformation under Mancini in the last three years has been extraordinary, from a team that failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup to one that has gone on a national record of 33 games unbeaten including their Wembley semi-final.
They were made to fight all the way against Spain, taking the lead through Federico Chiesa’s brilliant goal but being pegged back as Alvaro Morata’s equaliser made it 1-1 and forced extra time before the Azzurri prevailed 4-2 on penalties.
However, they merit their place in Sunday’s final against England or Denmark having been the outstanding side thus far at this European Championship.
After putting seven goals without reply past Turkey, Switzerland and Wales in the group stage they ground out an extra-time win over Austria, then beat Belgium in the quarter-finals despite losing star left-back Leonardo Spinazzola to a torn Achilles tendon.
Now they are closing on a second European Championship title.
“When you play in a World Cup or a European Championship it is intense, and there always comes a game where you have to dig in and suffer to win,” said Mancini.
“It can’t all be smooth as our progress had been up to now.
“We knew this was the one that was going to be really tough and that is why I think the players and everyone who has worked with us over the last three years deserves a lot of credit because it has not been easy by any means.
“Almost nobody believed we could do it and yet we are in the final, so we are pleased for Italians everywhere.”
Italians took to the streets across the country to celebrate while 11,000 of their fans — all UK-based as restrictions prevented supporters abroad from travelling — were inside Wembley to see Jorginho score the decisive kick in the shoot-out.
The complete side
Italy were in a mess after losing to Sweden in a 2018 World Cup qualifying play-off and Mancini had to pick up the pieces from that.
He has rebuilt them, and at this Euro they have been almost the complete side: from the veteran centre-back pairing of Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci to brilliant attacking full-backs, a gifted midfield trio of Marco Verratti, Jorginho and Nicolo Barella, and a livewire front line.
“The players wanted to play a brand of football that people enjoyed and thus far they have managed to do exactly that,” added Mancini.
Whether it is England or Denmark on Sunday, Italy should fancy their chances on current form and their record at getting to major tournament finals is enough to strike fear into any opponent.
Euro 2020 will see them make their 10th appearance in a final, with six at the World Cup and three at previous European Championships.
But while they have lifted the World Cup four times, their only continental triumph to date came as hosts of the four-team event in 1968.
Since then there have been two final losses that were painful in different ways.
In 2000 they were floored by a French golden goal in extra time in Rotterdam, while in 2012 Spain tore them apart to win 4-0 in Kiev.
“There is still one step to go and now we have to rest up because this really was very challenging,” added Mancini. “When you go into your sixth match with all the travelling it does become very tiring.”
Italy will hope the seventh is even more memorable.
“Playing for my country in matches like these, representing 60 million Italians, was an unbelievable dream,” said Juventus forward Chiesa, the son of Mancini’s old Sampdoria team-mate Enrico Chiesa.
Asked who he would rather play against in the final, Italy’s goal-scorer insisted he was not worried.
“We need to just think about ourselves, as we have done in this tournament. That is what has got us so far.”