LONDON - The old guard, once again, came good for Italy, this time steering the Azzurri to Euro 2020 glory, but wily defensive stalwarts Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini cannot go on forever.
One experienced defensive head is guaranteed to remain, however, to guide an exciting Italy team into the future, despite still being a boy himself. The unflappable Gianluigi Donnarumma is almost certainly going to go on to break all kinds of appearance records at club and international level.
At the age of 22, which is especially young given he is a goalkeeper, whose careers can carry on into their 40s, Donnarumma already has 33 Italy caps to his name, and is going into his seventh campaign at the top level of the game. His nerveless performance in such a pressurized situation as his two penalty shootout saves earned Italy a second-ever European Championship crown against England at Wembley defied his years, but not his experience.
Italian newspaper Il Messaggero hailed the goalkeeper, who technically is a free agent at the moment but is widely expected to complete a move to French side Paris St Germain, for "hypnotizing" Wembley, as football, as the majority of the rest of the Italian media proclaimed "came Rome.”
Following his trophy-clinching save from Bukayo Saka's penalty, the quiet and unassuming Donnarumma celebrated with surprising calmness, before stepping up to collect a deserved player of the tournament award.
Ngl this reaction of Donnarumma after winning the Euros was ice cold!pic.twitter.com/q6uwP08WKo— Wolf (@WoolwichCannons) July 12, 2021
3 clean sheets, 9 saves
Semi-finals penalty shoot-out hero
Final penalty shoot-out heroUEFA's team of Technical Observers have named Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma as their Player of the Tournament #EURO2020 | #ITA pic.twitter.com/HWGnaHLGkK
— UEFA EURO 2020 (@EURO2020) July 11, 2021
It was also the second time in as many games in the Euros he had won the day for his nation, as Italy became the first team to win two shootouts in the same edition of the European Championship. Before conceding against Austria in extra time in the last 16, Donnarumma had not been breached in 989 minutes for Italy, leading to obvious comparisons to the one goalkeeper with a longer run without being beaten for the Azzurri — Dino Zoff.
Another comparison was equally obvious after his penalty shootout heroics at Wembley, too.
"I was lucky as I played with Gianluigi Buffon, now I play with Gigi Donnarumma and it's the same," Italy’s winning captain Chiellini said. "We felt something magical in the air tonight."
CHANGING OF THE GUARD?
It was no secret where Italy's strength lay even before Sunday's final. In front of the near-impenetrable Donnarumma, Chiellini, 36, and his close friend Bonucci, 34, have defied their ages this summer to steer Italy to glory.
Bonucci and Chiellini were not dribbled past by a single opponent during the entire EURO 2020 tournament.Masters in the art of defending pic.twitter.com/kUwkU51xLV
— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) July 12, 2021
The Juventus teammates, who Bonucci revealed will be going on holiday together after their Euros triumph, showed all their experience and major tournament know-how to nullify England following their lightning start at Wembley, celebrating each tackle as if it were their last.
Bonucci and Chiellini woke up like this(via bonuccileo19/IG) pic.twitter.com/RGMCYiygNl
— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) July 12, 2021
While neither have made any plans to retire, it is unlikely that both will still be at the heart of Italy's defense late next year at the Qatar Would Cup, should Roberto Mancini’s side qualify. Chiellini, who has suffered several serious injuries in recent years, would be 38 by then.
"We had the disappointment of the failure to qualify for the World Cup (in 2018), but you always need to believe, strive for the top and never give up," Bonucci said. "This is a renaissance for Italian football. I'm sure now that this squad and coach will still make plenty of headlines going forward."
Should it be out with the old, the younger generation will be keen to step up to prove Bonucci right - that this summer's success was no one-off. Nicolò Barella, 24, capped a fine season for Inter Milan with a impressive tournament for his country, Federico Chiesa ran England ragged at times at Wembley, having scored a brilliant goal against Spain in the semifinal, while there are high hopes for Manuel Locatelli in midfield.
But such talent needs some guidance, and even though he is younger than them all, that man looks sets to be Donnarumma, who has already seen so much and, evidently, appears to be getting better, even in the most pressurized situations.
(Reporting by Peter Hall; Editing by Christian Radnedge)