Italy had to watch on from home as England reached the World Cup semi-finals in 2018, but three years on they are European champions after extending the Three Lions’ 55-year wait to win a major tournament.
Just three minutes into a night laced with tension in front of an official capacity of 67,000, and many more who had forced their way through the turnstiles without tickets, an Italian victory looked a long way off.
A swift counter-attack caught the Azzurri defence scrambling and Luke Shaw’s sweet strike from Kieran Trippier’s cross had England fans believing their time had finally come.
The game seemed perfectly set up for the hosts to get at the ageing legs of Italy’s old guard at centre-back of Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci.
Instead, the Juventus duo battened down the hatches and rolled back the years.
England’s star strikeforce of Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling barely got another sight of goal as the giant goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma was protected until he broke English hearts in a penalty shootout.
Roberto Mancini’s new-look Azzurri remain unbeaten in three years thanks to a style and swagger on and off the field.
But they, like their manager, were bedraggled early on in the London rain as Wembley erupted.
Mancini’s Armani grey blazer was replaced by a raincoat as he prowled the touchline, bellowing instructions at his players, but growing ever more frustrated as they failed to break through England’s mass ranks of defence.
For 67 minutes, the hosts put in the type of clinical, disciplined display Italian sides of old would have been proud of.
Gareth Southgate’s men had conceded just one goal — a stunning free-kick from Mikkel Damsgaard in the semi-finals — all tournament to reach the European Championship final for the first time.
But they were undone from another set-piece as Bonucci and Chiellini piled forward for a corner to provide the goal the Italians’ ailing attack could not find.
Chiellini threw himself at a loose ball and after Jordan Pickford saved Marco Verratti’s header, the ball fell kindly for Bonucci to stroke home the equaliser.
– Savouring the moment –
Wembley was silenced bar the small band of Italian blue behind the goal where Bonucci bellowed in celebration.
Chiellini 36, admitted on the eve of the game he was “savouring every last drop of my career”.
His famous celebrations of defensive interventions as if they were goals themselves were in evidence as he congratulated Bonucci for seeing off a dangerous late break from Sterling.
But the wily old fox was also in evidence as he hauled down Bukayo Saka by his collar to pick up a booking in stoppage time.
England boss Gareth Southgate unloaded his bench with crowd favourite Jack Grealish and latterly Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho coming on, but even into their third period of extra time of the tournament, the veteran legs of Italy’s old couple at the heart of the defence did not buckle.
There was no repeat of Chiellini’s jovial jousting with Spain’s Jordi Alba before the semi-final penalties when the Italian skipper lofted the Barcelona left-back up in a bear hug.
“I will hug them, smile or have a laugh but that’s something that I have always done,” said Chiellini before the final. “I have done that in these games and even more so in this European Championship. I am trying to really enjoy every single moment.”
He has even more reason to remember this one as in his 112th cap and sixth major tournament, Chiellini finally has a European honour to add to nine Serie A titles at club level.
Just as in the semi-final, it was Bonucci who took responsibility from the spot, crucially scoring his side’s third spot-kick to turn the momentum of the shootout when England led 2-1.
From there it was the Donnarumma show as the stopper, set to join Paris Saint-Germain, denied Sancho and Saka after Rashford had hit the post.
Bonucci claimed man of the match and Donnarumma player of the tournament, but it was Chiellini who held the trophy aloft to symbolise Italy’s transformation from national embarrassment to champions under Mancini.