Marcus Smith has been called up to the British and Irish Lions squad for their tour of South Africa, as Finn Russell struggles with an Achilles tendon injury.

Fly-half Smith, 22, helped Harlequins to the Premiership title this season and made his England debut against the United States last week.

He followed up his international bow with a superb showing in a 70-14 demolition of Canada on Saturday, kicking nine conversions.

After impressing at Twickenham, Smith – following coronavirus testing – will be heading to South Africa to join up with the Lions, who faced the Sharks on Saturday in their third match of the tour, with the three-Test series against the Springboks starting later this month.

And Gatland is excited to see what Smith can bring to his squad, with Russell likely to be out for several weeks.

"Finn Russell has been managing an Achilles injury he's had for a couple of weeks, but he's not going to be 100 per cent," Gatland explained.

"He's got a slight tear in his Achilles, they're going to inject it and see if they can manage it through the next couple of weeks, as a result we're going to call up Marcus Smith to come out here on Sunday.

"He'll catch a flight, needs to be PCR tested after the [England] game and hopefully all is well. He's been absolutely outstanding, I'm a big fan of his, watched him play last year, thought he was really promising, had a great season for Harlequins.

"He's been playing regularly, winning the championship with Harlequins, playing for England now and a similar player to Finn Russell so a like-for-like replacement in a lot of ways, so he might add something exciting and new to the squad."

There was a sense of justice and vindication about Italy reaching the final of Euro 2020. They had been arguably the most entertaining side at the tournament and attracted near-universal levels of acclaim for their performances.

Added to that, there was an inspiring narrative that followed their every step, how they'd recovered from the failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, started from scratch with a new coach and philosophy, and seen it all come together at their first major tournament since.

But they were fortunate to get beyond Spain in the semi-finals, eventually coming through on penalties after a 1-1 draw.

La Roja did more than enough to win the match, their 1.5 xG almost double the 0.8 that Italy recorded, highlighting the greater quality chances created by Luis Enrique's men.

Although Spain's almost trademark – at this tournament, anyway – wastefulness eventually caught up with them, they at least did Gareth Southgate and England a service in pinpointing ways to hurt Italy.

 

Thinking outside of the box

The chief alteration Luis Enrique made to his side from Spain's previous matches at Euro 2020 was the decision to disregard Alvaro Morata and Gerard Moreno for that central striker berth.

Now, some might have suggested it was about time, given they were two of the three players with the worst xG underperformance ahead of the semi-finals – Morata had two goals from 3.95 xG, Moreno had no goals from 3.27 xG.

But the reason for their absence, and the presence of Dani Olmo as a false nine, quickly became apparent. The RB Leipzig attacking midfielder withdrew into deeper positions so as to not directly engage Giorgio Chiellini or Leonardo Bonucci in physical duels, but at the same time this helped create midfield overloads in Spain's favour.

This was obvious on numerous occasions, but one of the most notable saw Olmo actually drop in front of Jorginho, a clever flick in the centre-circle seeing him release Pedri into space as Spain cleverly picked through the Italian midfield.

Granted, it didn't necessarily lead to a goal that time, but it highlighted how uncomfortable Italy sometimes found themselves, and the fact Olmo's combined total of seven shots and key passes (five attempts, two chances created) was the most of any player against Italy at this tournament cannot be a coincidence.

Morata's equaliser off the bench came from a situation not too dissimilar to the previous one as well. This time it was he who picked the ball up in a deep position, before charging straight through the Italy midfield and playing a one-two with Olmo, leaving him with a simple finish. Although he might've missed a few of those already in this tournament, he finished with aplomb on that occasion.

 

The blueprint

You know how in some video games there are unusually fearsome enemies who only unleash their wrath upon the player if they don't keep their distance? Well, that seemed to be how Luis Enrique saw Chiellini and Bonucci, and maybe he has a point.

Ahead of the final, Chiellini's 71.4 per cent duels success has been bettered by only six defenders (involved in 10 or more duels), while Bonucci's 12 interceptions is the best of all of them. Together, there's not much they don't possess.

That's why playing around them, rather than through them, seems to be the way to go.

While England don't possess a midfield that's as capable – in almost any sense – as Spain's, mirroring their set-up could at least make things trickier for Italy's core: that centre-back pairing and the three-man midfield.

Jorginho, Nicolo Barella and Marco Verratti have been largely excellent at Euro 2020, but at Wembley on Tuesday they were overrun.

 

Jorginho found it particularly tough going, the Chelsea man completing just 26 passes and only five of those were in the Spain half. To put that into context, his previous match low for accurate passes at the Euros was 50, and he'd not gone below 29 in the opponent's half of the pitch.

 

Verratti and Barella also recorded tournament lows in the same metrics, but it was Jorginho's lack of influence that was most notable and, given he is generally the deepest-lying of the Italian midfield, it lends further credence to the idea that Olmo operating slightly deeper ensured the former Napoli star was uncomfortable and unable to truly dictate.

Instead, that was done by Sergio Busquets and – to a slightly lesser extent, but no less impressively – Pedri, while Koke spent much of his time marshalling Verratti in something of a man-marking role.

Of course, an important distinction to make is that Kalvin Phillips, Declan Rice and Mason Mount aren't Busquets, Pedri and Koke, but if England are to limit the influence of the Italian midfield, all three will need to play the games of their lives.

Kane holds the key

If Phillips and Rice can establish some form of control, the second key factor for England will be the role played by Harry Kane.

While Kane is undoubtedly capable of causing Bonucci and Chiellini problems, mimicking Olmo's performance could be a smart move, and there are few strikers in world football more capable than the Tottenham man at dropping deep and impacting the match in withdrawn spaces.

Jose Mourinho would know all about that, given it was under the Portuguese coach in 2020-21 that Kane enjoyed his best season creatively, reaching double figures for Premier League assists for the first time.

Mourinho told talkSPORT: "[Spain] was the only team that managed to unbalance that Italy midfield, because they had three and Spain had three plus Olmo, almost in a diamond. It was really difficult for Italy to cope with it. I can see Harry Kane doing that a lot. I can see Harry dropping and being away from Bonucci and Chiellini.

 

"For Bonucci and Chilellini, to have a target man in there is what they want. By not having a target man there, it's an extra midfielder, Harry Kane does that better than anyone."

Kane's 14 assists (12 in open play) in 2020-21 came from 3.6 xA (expected assists). Granted, that 10.4 over-performance – which was by far the best across the top five leagues – suggests a hint of fortune or that he was helped by good finishing from team-mates, but the idea he got lucky on every single occasion is far-fetched. He is clearly a fine link-up player.

Seven of those assists came from deeper positions, and the role Raheem Sterling plays for England isn't too dissimilar to that of Son Heung-min at Spurs, and we all know about Kane and Son's on-pitch relationship.

Italy's midfield is their strength, but all three of their regulars are players who want the ball – none of them are destroyers, and Spain have provided England with the blueprint to dull their impact.

Whether the Three Lions are up to the challenge will define if 55 years of hurt finally end on Sunday.

 

England will hope to end a 55-year major-tournament trophy drought on Sunday when they meet Italy in the Euro 2020 final, while Roberto Mancini is eyeing the crowning achievement of his transformational reign.

The Three Lions have not even qualified for a final since winning the 1966 World Cup and will be competing in their first European Championship decider. It will be Italy's third this century, though it is a competition they have not won in 53 years.

Although Italy's performances up to the final have generally attracted widespread acclaim, with the Azzurri stretching their unbeaten record to 33 matches, England will once again have the advantage as hosts.

England have won 15 of their previous 17 matches at Wembley, while seven of the previous 10 instances of a European nation competing in a major tournament final as hosts (World Cup/Euros) have ended in victory for the home side.

 

As much as anything, Gareth Southgate has cherished the chance to bring joy to fans so far at the tournament, but he is not kidding himself that adulation is a guarantee.

"I know we can make people's lives happier," he told the Telegraph. "It's a wonderful privilege to be able to make a difference, but if you get any of those bits wrong it can fall down and it's no use being able to speak about areas of society.

"If we don't get the tactical bit right, the selections right, if we don't manage the players the right way, the house falls down. I know now this is a lovely period in many ways, but we've got to get Sunday right."

Nevertheless, Italy have confounded their doubters every step of the way at Euro 2020, and Mancini, having taken over his national team in the wake of World Cup qualification failure three years ago, is a step away from completing one the great turnarounds in international football.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Italy – Marco Verratti

While Jorginho has arguably been the Italian midfielder to garner the most applause at Euro 2020, Verratti has been no less integral when on the pitch. Only Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg (15) has started more open-play sequences ending in a shot than him (nine), while Kevin De Bruyne (13) is the sole individual with more chances created (12 for Verratti). He is not just important to Italy's flow in possession, but he also has a vital role as a creator – if England find a way to keep him quiet, their own title hopes will surely improve considerably.

England – Harry Kane

In a sense, Spain gave England something resembling a blueprint of how to nullify some of Italy's strengths. One aspect was Dani Olmo deployed as a false nine, with La Roja trying not to directly engage the Italian centre-backs while also creating a midfield overload. If any striker in world football is equipped to carry out a similar role, it's Kane. The Tottenham star remarkably got 12 open-play assists from 3.6 xA (expected assists) in the 2020-21 Premier League campaign, with as many as six coming from deeper positions. Granted, his over-performance of 8.4 suggests he benefited from some luck or good finishing, but it also proves how effective he can be.

 

KEY OPTA FACTS

- Between them, England (2.2) and Italy (2.3) have faced fewer shots on target per game than any other sides at Euro 2020. England also have the lowest expected goals against tally in the competition so far (3.2).

- Italy have had 12 shots and scored three goals as a result of a high turnover (open play sequences beginning 40metres or less from opponents' goal line) at Euro 2020, more than any other side.

- England's 2-1 win over Denmark in the semi-final was their eighth win in a major tournament match under Southgate, moving him level with Alf Ramsey for joint most victories by an England manager across the two competitions.

- This is the third major tournament final to be held at Wembley Stadium. The previous two were both won in extra time, with England beating Germany in the 1966 World Cup, and Die Mannschaft then defeating the Czech Republic in Euro 1996.

- England are the 13th different nation to feature in a European Championship final (counting Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic as one) – just three of the previous 12 lost their first ever final in the competition: Yugoslavia (1960), Belgium (1980) and Portugal (2004).  

Harry Kane knows England must make home advantage count as the Three Lions aim to win a major tournament for only the second time.

England beat Denmark on Wednesday courtesy of Kane's extra-time goal to progress to their maiden European Championship final, and their first in any competition since 1966.

Kane's goal also saw him equal Gary Lineker as England's leading scorer in major tournaments, with 10.

Italy, playing in their 10th major tournament final (six at the World Cup, four at the Euros), stand in the way of Gareth Southgate's team, however.

The Three Lions will have the crowd firmly on side at Wembley on Sunday, though, and Kane – who stated winning with England would rank above winning a trophy at club level – is out to make history.

"It would mean everything to me and this team, for sure. I've said before: winning something with your nation would surpass anything you can do at club level, so we have that opportunity," he told UEFA.com.

"It's been a long time since our country was in a final, so we'll just have to grab it with both hands now.

"To be playing at Wembley makes the occasion even bigger and even more special. To have our own fans there singing and edging us on – the energy is going to be amazing. So there will be no better place to win our second major trophy than at Wembley again.

"It's a great moment in our history as a nation. The excitement is going to be through the roof; I'm sure there'll be a few nerves as well. It's just about going out there and feeding off all that energy in the stadium and the crowd and trying to use that to our advantage.

"Now we have that opportunity to create even more history, and [for] our parents and family members who've never seen England in a final before – and I know that goes across the whole country.

"It's a special moment to be in and if we can finish the job and win, then obviously we'll be remembered in history for the rest of our lives. That's the challenge we have, so we'll have to go and take it."

 

England are unbeaten in their last 12 matches in all competitions (W11 D1), keeping 10 clean sheets and conceding just two goals in the process.

In fact, they have conceded just one goal so far at Euro 2020, with four of the seven previous sides to concede just once in a European Championship tournament winning the trophy (Soviet Union 1960, Italy 1968, Germany 1972 and Spain 2012).

Italy, though, come into Sunday's game  – which sees the two sides to have faced the fewest shots at the tournament meet – on the back of a record-setting 33-match unbeaten run.

"It'll be a tough game. Italy are a great side. They've got a great a history of winning major tournaments as well," Kane added.

"They've got great experience in the team, they've got great individuals, but collectively they have a real togetherness. It's going to be a tough battle, but you know we've got more than enough in our team to win."

One fitness concern for Southgate could be Phil Foden, with the Manchester City attacker – who started the first two games of England's campaign – sitting out training on Saturday due to a minor knock.

Raheem Sterling has struck fear into opponents at Euro 2020 ahead of England's final showdown with Italy, former Three Lions forward Emile Heskey told Stats Perform.

Sterling had already scored three goals before laying on the opener for captain Harry Kane in the 4-0 quarter-final win against Ukraine.

The Manchester City attacker was then in electrifying form in the semi-final versus Denmark, eventually winning the decisive penalty in extra time, with Kane beating Kasper Schmeichel on the rebound after his initial spot-kick was saved.

Sterling has attempted (32) and completed (18) more take-ons than any other player at Euro 2020 and Heskey believes this relentless edge to the 26-year-old's game will be vital as he pits his wits against the expertise of Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini in the Italy defence.

"Raheem has showed us time and time again that he is a key player to any team that he goes into," he said.

"Whether it be when he was very young and was playing for Liverpool, or now as a senior pro – even though he's only 26 – playing for the for the national team and playing for Man City. He always brings something.

"You watch him when he's on the ball, he takes away three or four players that become attracted to him.

"If he gives it away, he'll inevitably be trying win it back. But when you've got four people attracted to one player, there should be ample space for others and that's what he brings to the table because everyone's so scared of him.

"He's got that pace and we see a lot of players with pace, but to be able to utilize it in the way that he does… even in extra time [against Denmark] he was driving past players and taking them on.

"Players were not wanting to get too close, because it's going to be a foul if you get too close to him. No defender wants to go anywhere near him."

 

Heskey is also a huge admirer of the manner in which Sterling and other members of the England squad have stood up for causes they believe in over recent months.

Sterling was awarded an MBE last month for his efforts to promote racial equality, while England's players have continued to take a knee before matches despite the likes of UK prime minister Boris Johnson and Foreign Secretary Pritti Patel defending fans who chose to boo the peaceful protest.

"It's fantastic. You’ve got to take your hat off to them, because again, they're getting a little bit of kickback," said Heskey, who was also keen to acknowledge Marcus Rashford's work in trying to combat child hunger.

"But they know that they're doing the right thing standing up for what they believe, whether it's Marcus, whether it's Raheem, whoever it is. They want to stand up for what they believe.

"The wrong people are going to try and sabotage that. But they know that they've got most of the people behind them."

Heskey added: "We're not just talking about fans, we're talking about all walks of life, talking about MP's saying whether it's right or wrong.

"So we're having kickbacks from everywhere, but they're still pushing. They're still not listening. They're still doing what they believe is right."

The Football Association has received a €30,000 fine due to the behaviour of some fans during England's Euro 2020 semi-final win over Denmark.

England came from behind to beat Denmark 2-1 after extra time and reach their first major tournament final since winning the 1966 World Cup.

Yet the win was partially marred by the conduct of some supporters at Wembley on Wednesday.

The FA was charged by UEFA's Control Ethics and Disciplinary Body for fans booing the Danish national anthem, setting off fireworks and for the use of a laser pointer, which was shined in the face of goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel as he prepared to face Harry Kane's extra-time penalty.

Schmeichel saved Kane's spot-kick but the England captain tucked away the decisive goal on the rebound.

Wembley will again host 60,000 fans for the final, with 1,000 supporters from Italy permitted to travel to London for the showpiece.

Italy are in the final of the Euros for the fourth time, with the Azzurri attempting to win the tournament for the first time since 1968.

Phil Foden sat out England's training session on the eve of the Euro 2020 final against Italy.

Manchester City midfielder Foden was absent due to a "minor knock", with all other members of Gareth Southgate's 26-man squad present.

Southgate will address the media later on Saturday, when he is expected to give an update on Foden's condition.

The 21-year-old was named Professional Footballers' Association (PFA) Young Player of the Year in 2020-21 after scoring 16 goals and supplying 10 assists in all competitions as City won the Premier League and retained the EFL Cup.

He began Euro 2020 on the right-hand side of England's attack, hitting the post during the early stages of the opening 1-0 win over Croatia.

But Foden was substituted during the lacklustre 0-0 draw against Scotland and did not feature again until an impressive extra-time substitute appearance in the 2-1 semi-final victory versus Denmark.

 

He has created two chances for team-mates at the tournament and completed 87 per cent of his 71 passes in open play.

Bukayo Saka returned on the right flank to face Denmark after Jadon Sancho played in the 4-0 quarter-final thrashing of Ukraine, with the Arsenal winger favourite to retain his place.

Gareth Southgate hopes his England team can continue to make the nation a more inclusive place for football fans of all backgrounds.

England face Italy in Sunday's Euro 2020 final at Wembley, their first appearance in a major international showpiece since beating West Germany 4-2 in the 1966 World Cup final.

The Three Lions' run to the final follows their semi-final appearance at the 2018 World Cup – a tournament that served to have a transformative effect in terms of the country's dwindling relationship with its national side.

Speaking to UK national newspapers, Southgate explained he was struck by first-hand accounts of people feeling they would be welcome at football stadiums in England after Russia 2018, having previously feared they would be victims of abuse.

"What hit me coming back from Russia was families coming up to me on the street, people coming up to me on the street from all backgrounds of our country and saying they felt they could go to a game now and not be abused at the stadium," he said. "[They could] connect with the team. They felt part of it.

"And that inclusivity is really important for us because I think that is what modern England is. We know it hasn't always been the case and there are historic reasons for that.

"But that level of tolerance and inclusion is what we have to be about moving forward."

Examples of such tolerance are easy to spot in Southgate's squad, from Raheem Sterling's work to promote racial equality, to Marcus Rashford's campaigning against child poverty which resulted in a change in the UK government's free school meals policy.

 

Jordan Henderson, the Liverpool captain, led efforts for Premier League players to support NHS workers through the #PlayersTogether initiative during the early weeks of the coronavirus pandemic.

Henderson was wearing rainbow laces when he scored his long-awaited maiden England goal in the 4-0 quarter-final win over Ukraine, showing his support for the LGBTQ+ community.

"We have a view of what being English should represent and standards we want to hit," Southgate said. "You still have to win football matches. If you don't, those messages and things we stand for don't have the same impact.

"But I think we still have to be consistent in what we think is important. If we set the right standards as a group of staff, our job is to help them be the best players they can be, but also if we can help them grow as people.

"We have exceptional examples of players setting a really good example for young kids who are watching them and will aspire to be them through this tournament.

"It's important that their parents, when they are talking to those kids can say, 'We are quite happy for you to be a Raheem, a Marcus, a Kalvin Phillips' or whoever they might be because they stand for the right things off the pitch as well as on it."

England batsman Ollie Pope faces a battle to be fit for the start of the India Test series after suffering a thigh injury.

Pope damaged a muscle in his left thigh while batting for Surrey in a Vitality Blast match against Kent Spitfires last week.

He is a doubt for the first game of the series against Virat Kohli's side at Trent Bridge on August 4.

The England and Wales Cricket Board stated: "England batsman Ollie Pope has been ruled out until England's Test Series against India after suffering a left thigh muscle injury.

"Pope sustained the injury while batting during Surrey’s Vitality Blast match against Kent Spitfires on Friday 2 July.

"The ECB and Surrey fitness teams will work together to deliver Pope’s rehabilitation with a focus for him to be available to return for the first Test against India."

It is another unfortunate setback for Pope, who underwent shoulder surgery after dislocating his shoulder in a Test against Pakistan last August – the second time he had suffered that injury.

In the immediate, dazzling afterglow of England beating Denmark 2-1 over 120 minutes to secure a first major final appearance since 1966, Gareth Southgate praised his team's resilience.

That quality has always been readily associated with his country's national team. Perhaps you think of Terry Butcher's blood-stained head bandage or Stuart Pearce screaming maniacally after exorcising his penalty shoot-out demons.

Or maybe less successful iterations. Even when they've not been so accomplished on the field, there is a common perception of England being good for going down swinging, raging against the dying of the light to find glory in failure.

Raheem Sterling doesn't fit that template. The Manchester City forward is one of the most successful and decorated players of his generation, with eight major honours to his name at club level, most of which he has played a decisive role in securing.

That sounds like the sort of player who might be England's standout performer as they await Sunday's date with Italy and destiny at Wembley. And he is – at Euro 2020, Sterling has been electrifying as the driving force of Southgate's side.

But the acclaim to match that status has been hard to spot, maddeningly so at certain points of his career. Although he is cut from a different cloth to Butcher, Pearce or the archetypal English "warrior" footballer, Sterling is arguably the most resilient player England has ever seen. Whether he should have to have been so resilient is another matter entirely.

 

From the boy wonder to #TheHatedOne

On Sunday, Sterling goes back to the start, returning again to the stadium that overlooked his boyhood home, the canvas for fantastical daydreams, and to the opponents he faced on his major tournament debut at the 2014 World Cup.

Roy Hodgson's England crashed out without winning a game in Brazil, but none of the blame was pinned on a fresh-faced 19-year-old who represented a hope of better days to come.

Handed the number 10 role behind then club-mate Daniel Sturridge, Sterling dazzled early on in the 2-1 defeat to Italy in Manaus, taking his form from a breakout season at Liverpool into national colours. A now familiar scampering dribble preceded a 25-yard drive that rippled the side netting. So close to the opener and an optical illusion of a goal that sent pints flying in pubs back home.

That was only Sterling's fifth cap and the first time he completed 90 minutes for England, but any honeymoon was over a year later when he was booed during a friendly away to the Republic of Ireland. Dublin is a Liverpool stronghold and the winger's wish to leave Anfield had become laced with bitterness and acrimony.

 

His desire to join City has been vindicated through weight of trophies and achievements, although the jury remained out after a tough first season under Manuel Pellegrini at the Etihad Stadium and he was the focus of ire during England's unhappy Euro 2016 campaign.

In a social media post, he labelled himself #TheHatedOne following criticism of his performance during the 1-1 draw with Russia. Against Wales, he missed a glorious chance to score and was substituted at half-time.

Sterling returning to the side to win an early penalty was long forgotten by the time minnows Iceland completed their 2-1 last-16 win over Hodgson's beleaguered team. In the days following that debacle, one newspaper branded him "Obscene Raheem" on its front page for "showing off" his "blinging house".

It turned out Sterling bought the property for his mother, who raised him alone in Jamaica and then London after his father was murdered.

 

"I'm not normally the person to talk but when I think I need my point heard I will speak up"

Those early challenges of Sterling's resilience – whatever undertones might have accompanied assertions that he was some sort of ungrateful money grabber – were related to his sporting performance, even if the tabloid takedown was utterly tenuous and tawdry.

Coming through failure on the biggest stages to succeed over and over demonstrates thrilling resilience that fans love to see; the sort of resilience that allows great performers to realise sport's most narratively compelling moments.

But Sterling has also frequently delved into reserves no one should have to call upon in a decent society.

"Someone called my name – my full name – so I thought, 'Oh, they probably know me'. At this point people were starting to recognise me a bit," Sterling told GQ in 2019, recalling the first time he suffered racial abuse after joining Liverpool as a schoolboy.

"He says, 'Can I speak to you for a second?' I said, 'Yeah, no problem.' So I walk across the road and then he says the n-word and he headbutts me.

"I took care of the rest. A hundred per cent he regretted it."

In some ways, it feels like Sterling has been taking care of the rest ever since. Like when he was assaulted and racially abused at City's training ground in December 2017 by a Manchester United supporter. Later that day, he scored twice in a 4-1 win over Tottenham.

Or when he was abused by fans at Stamford Bridge a year later and responded with an eloquent Instagram post calling for equal treatment of black and white footballers in the media, urging an end to any coverage that "helps fuel racism and aggressive behaviour".

Or when he was one of several England players targeted by monkey chants in Montenegro and Bulgaria in 2019, when he scored in 5-1 and 6-0 wins.

Sterling was also at the forefront of football supporting Black Lives Matter following the killing of George Floyd and received an MBE last month in recognition of his work promoting racial equality.

But there was weariness when he discussed his activism in an interview with ITV last week, one that is entirely understandable when a minority of fans boo him and his England colleagues for taking the knee before kick-off – their peaceful, dignified protest against racial injustice.

It feels even more understandable when UK government ministers who gave licence to those booing and dismissed kneeling as a "gesture" are now firing out #ItsComingHome tweets at every opportunity, wearing England shirts or standing on a massive flag.

"It's not something I'm killing myself to do anymore, I'm not going to be on the frontline speaking about it. We're adults enough now to understand these things. I just feel, when it comes to racial abuse, it's not taken seriously," Sterling said.

 

"Everything we have done in the past, without him would not have been possible"

A line of attack for those dubious on Sterling's capabilities over recent years has been to suggest his status as an inspiring role model means shortcomings on the pitch are overlooked.

That specious logic falls down when you consider Pep Guardiola's ruthlessly unsentimental approach to constructing football teams.

Since inheriting Sterling in 2016, he has signed Leroy Sane, Nolito, Gabriel Jesus, Bernardo Silva, Riyad Mahrez and Ferran Torres – all players able to operate with some distinction and capped by their countries in wide attacking roles.

Until a poor run of form in the second half of last season, Sterling saw them all off – becoming as close to an untouchable as Guardiola allows. He is one of only three players to have scored 100 goals under the Catalan's management. The others are Lionel Messi and Sergio Aguero. 

 

Guardiola does not pick Sterling because he is "an incredible person, incredible human being", as he said in the wake of the Stamford Bridge abuse. In January this year, when Sterling's form was questioned in a news conference, he sharply retorted: "Everything we have done in the past, without him would not have been possible."

When City won the Premier League title with 100 points and also lifted the EFL Cup in 2017-18, Sterling scored 23 goals and supplied 15 assists in all competitions. In 2018-19, when his brace in the FA Cup final helped to round off an unprecedented domestic treble, those numbers were up to 25 goals and 15 assists.

The 2019-20 season was Sterling's most prolific with 31 goals, although it ended with a horror miss in a Champions League quarter-final loss to Lyon. His conversion of opportunities Opta rank as "big chances" was down from 58.1 per cent in 2018-19 to 39.7.

Unreliable finishing remains an unwanted feature of Sterling's game and was once again the focus when goals dried up en route to a third Premier League title in four years last season.

Overall, 24 goal involvements (14 goals and 10 assists) represented his lowest since Guardiola's first season in 2016-17, but far from a disaster. For some, however, it seemed a 30-goal campaign should be the norm and Sterling was useless for falling away from three seasons of incredible consistency.

Just a tap-in merchant who'd been found out. With the likes of Jadon Sancho, Marcus Rashford, Phil Foden and Bukayo Saka in his squad, why on earth would Southgate persist with Sterling?

 

"Have I justified my place in the team?"

It was easy to fear for the player with a tattoo of himself as a boy looking up at the Wembley arch, who appeared wretchedly out of form when recalled for City's Champions League final defeat to Chelsea. The moment he had spent a career and a lifetime anticipating was around the corner and he looked ill-equipped to grasp it.

Plus, England duty under the glare of the nation had previously not been too kind to Sterling. Across 12 games and 828 minutes in major tournaments heading into Euro 2020, he had no goals and one assist.

"It's not been an easy road with the national team in the past. Some, I'd say, unfair flack that I would get before touching a football sometimes," he told BBC Sport

"As a young person it was difficult to deal with. In life and football you have to challenge yourself and take it for what it is. You can't be down on yourself, you have to push yourself even more.

"That's what I've kept doing and I think that's one of my best traits."

 

Sterling performed tirelessly for the cause as England reached the semi-finals of the 2018 World Cup, but the paucity of his return in front of goal left him on the outside looking in when it came to the feelgood factor that enveloped the bulk of Southgate's squad.

We're back to the resilience again, because the forward produced the best season of his career in 2018-19 to be named Football Writers' Association Player of the Year. He also enjoyed belated lift-off with the Three Lions.

Heading into an October 2018 Nations League showdown against Spain in Seville, he had two goals and nine assists in 45 caps. He netted two more in a thrilling 3-2 win. From cap 46 to his 67th versus Denmark he has scored 15 and laid on another seven – averaging a goal involvement every 87 minutes.

This is the version of Sterling that Southgate and England have enjoyed so much at Euro 2020, where he sealed 1-0 group stage wins over Croatia and the Czech Republic before breaking the deadlock against Germany to spark round-of-16 pandemonium in his neighbourhood.

It is perhaps a little sweeter that this purple patch for his country has come at a time when relations with Guardiola have come to appear strained. Another example of Sterling being damned with faint praise is his improvement at City being frequently cited – although, it should be said, never by the manager himself – as a triumph of coaching genius as much as his own endeavours.

He ended extra time against Denmark tearing through a shattered opposition defence to draw another save from Kasper Schmeichel. He was everywhere in a performance Gary Lineker hailed as "one of the greatest displays I've seen from a player in an England shirt".

 

Sterling has attempted (32) and completed (18) more dribbles than any other player at Euro 2020. He has never had more touches in the opposition box (38, 13.3 per cent of his overall touches) at any previous tournament. His expected goals (xG) and expected assists (xA) figures of 3.82 and 1.14 are also far in excess of past efforts and paint a picture of a player almost always involved when England create high-quality chances.

This is player-of-the-tournament form. By Sunday night, it might stand as the greatest ever showing in this setting by an Englishman.

But if it all goes wrong, a sitter is missed and the insults fly again – he's a diver now, you see, as well as a tap-in merchant – the seven years since that first tangle with Italy tell us Sterling will bounce back with all the fearlessness, brilliance and resilience we should have long since learned to cherish.

Giorgio Chiellini is a big admirer of England striker Harry Kane but the veteran defender says Italy will have to be wary of threats from all over the pitch in Sunday's Euro 2020 final. 

Italy booked their spot in the final with a penalty shoot-out win over Spain on Tuesday, while England reached their first ever European Championship final thanks to Kane's extra-time winner against Denmark a day later. 

After a slow start to Euro 2020, Tottenham striker Kane has netted four times in the three knockout rounds and a goal in the final will see him become England's outright highest goalscorer in major tournaments (currently 10, level with Gary Lineker). 

The Three Lions captain scored six times at World Cup 2018, repeating Lineker's feat from 1986 of winning the golden boot. 

He is behind only Cristiano Ronaldo and Patrik Schick (both five) in the scoring charts at Euro 2020, with another tournament golden boot firmly in his sights.

Chiellini has been superb for the Azzurri throughout their run to the final and the Juventus defender knows he will have to be at his best to keep a resurgent Kane quiet. 

"It will be tough, extremely tough," he told Euro2020.com. 

"I have always liked Harry Kane a lot. I still remember one of his first matches with England, when we played against them in Turin [on Kane's full England debut, a 1-1 draw in 2015]. Even then he made a huge impression on me. 

"I was lucky enough to play against him in a game against Tottenham. He knows how to play deep and how to play a defence-splitting pass for a team-mate. He scores with his head and from long and close range."

 

England's abundance of talent in attack means Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Jack Grealish have managed just one start between them. 

Despite talking up Kane’s talents, Chiellini has warned his Azzurri team-mates to be on high alert should any of that trio make an appearance on Sunday.

"England are clearly not just Kane because they have amazing players on both wings and their substitutes could all be in the starting XI of a team that wins this competition," he added.

"Players like Grealish,Sancho, Rashford, [Dominic] Calvert-Lewin, [Phil] Foden were all on the bench but they're top players, including [Jordan] Henderson. 

"It will be a great match. Neither team will be afraid but both will have a lot of respect for each other."

The clash will be Italy's 10th major tournament final (six World Cup, four European Championship), with only Germany (14) having played in more among European nations. 

Roberto Mancini's men won the European Championship in 1968, but have lost their subsequent two final appearances in the competition (2000 and 2012).

Giorgio Chiellini quipped Italy's squad believed Roberto Mancini to be "crazy" when the Azzurri boss initially laid out his plans to win Euro 2020.

Mancini was appointed Italy coach in May 2018, after the Azzurri's failure to qualify for that year's World Cup.

After an indifferent start to his tenure, Italy have gone on a record-setting 33-match unbeaten run, leading them to the Euro 2020 final, in which they will face England at Wembley.

Along with their opponents on Sunday, Italy have been the standout performers in the competition, and saw off fellow heavyweights Belgium and Spain en route to the final.

Juventus' Chiellini has been a key figure, with the veteran campaigner making four appearances.

And though Italy will be full of confidence heading into the showdown, he revealed the faith in Mancini's plan was not always so prominent. 

"[Getting to the final is] a dream we've been chasing over the years, a dream we've been carrying [with us] for three years, a dream our coach slowly put in our minds until it became true," Chiellini told UEFA.com.

"At the beginning, when he told us to have in our minds the idea of winning the Euro, we thought he was crazy; instead, during these years he has created a team which is now on the brink of doing that.

"And as he has repeated to us after every match, 'one centimetre at a time', and now there is only the last centimetre left.

"This championship has been very emotional, from the first match against Turkey up to now. But, if I read some of the texts that I sent before Euro 2020 to some of my close friends, the feeling was that we would have a summer filled with emotion, joy, magical nights and adventures.

"It was in us because you felt the ease and the bond that we feel when this team does things together."

 

Chiellini is 36, but has never won an international competition with Italy, having missed out on the squad for the 2006 World Cup.

He has played in a European Championship final before, only to fall foul of an all-conquering Spain side that thrashed Italy 4-0 in 2012.

" A win is as exciting at 36 as it is at 21. Maybe at 36 you feel it more because you understand more how hard it is and the work that goes into it," said Chiellini, the eighth-oldest player to have been involved in Euro 2020.

"I believe that I have succeeded in bringing my experience here and the emotions that I felt from the 15 years since I started playing professionally.

"You know how it feels at every age: at 20, at 25, and at 30 you start understanding your team-mates' behaviour. Now, I have the maturity to understand fully what this championship means to us."

John Stones lauded Gareth Southgate's "unique" management as the Manchester City defender prepares for England's Euro 2020 final showdown with Italy.

Stones has started every game for the Three Lions at the tournament, with only goalkeeper Jordan Pickford (570) playing more minutes than the centre-back (559), who has also attempted more passes (424) than any other England player.

The 27-year-old has helped keep five clean sheets, with England having set a new national record for not conceding a goal before Mikkel Damsgaard's free-kick found the net in Wednesday's semi-final win over Denmark.

Southgate has made some brave, and at times unpopular, decisions throughout the tournament, though the vast majority have so far come off, with England having progressed to the final of a major tournament for the first time since 1966, and just the second time in history.

While England approached group-stage games against Croatia, Scotland and the Czech Republic with caution, the attack clicked into gear in a 4-0 quarter-final hammering of Ukraine, following a 2-0 win over Germany in the last 16.

England then had 20 shots to Denmark's six in the semi-final clash at Wembley, with the squad's strength in depth and spirit once more on show.

"Every manager I've had is definitely unique and has their own philosophy," Stones told a news conference when asked about Southgate's impact.

"I think Gareth's created an unbelievable culture within our squad and calmness, it's his unique quality as a person and a manager. He's got great staff around him and an incredible squad with great characters in that, one of his best characteristics is his calmness under pressure.

"His willingness to win – I think that shines through, when you've got a manager with that quality, it passes through the team, you soon jump on board.

"He's got a unique quality of staying calm and it passes through the team. [Against Denmark] it was the first time we had been to extra time [at Euro 2020], we stayed calm, stuck to the game plan and it worked.

"We don't need to change anything, we cover every aspect in our preparation."

 

England were among the pre-tournament favourites, though their run to the final has been impressive, if the performances have not quite matched some of those by Sunday's opponents Italy.

Stones, alongside first Tyrone Mings and then Harry Maguire, has been particularly sharp, continuing his form after a season in which he defied the odds at City.

Indeed, at this time in 2020, Stones was being linked with a move away from City, yet the former Everton and Barnsley defender fought back to become a key figure for Pep Guardiola and now Southgate.

"It's something we've only dreamed of at the start of the tournament, but we've got this far, we're here now and we've just grown and grown throughout the tournament, not put too much pressure on ourselves," Stones said of England's run.

"We've overcome some tough tests over the past few years, learned a lot of things, gained a lot of experience and all the learning curves. A massive occasion.

"We're approaching this game how we would any other at club level or whatever competition we're in. The England team, whoever has contributed, everyone is giving everything for that shirt and the nation. We all loved the England team growing up, being able to play now, we cherish it, it's a special moment for us to do that." 

Asked if his struggles at City had helped shape him, Stones – who did not feature for England last year – replied: "Yes, a little bit, all those times have made me who I am.

"I'd have liked an easier route but that's football. You have setbacks. I've tried to learn from them, stay positive and true to myself.

"It's a massive moment for me and my family, going through tough times and the hard work and dedication. It's a proud moment and hopefully I get to be in the starting XI."

Raheem Sterling has been "unplayable" for England and one last big performance from the Manchester City star could prove to be the difference against Italy.

That is the opinion of former England captain Alan Shearer ahead of the Euro 2020 final at Wembley on Sunday.

England reached their first final at a major tournament since 1966 when they came from behind to beat Denmark 2-1 in extra-time on Wednesday.

Sterling produced an effervescent display and won the controversial penalty that was converted by Harry Kane on the rebound to settle a thrilling contest.

 

Shearer believes the City forward, who scored goals in the wins over Croatia, the Czech Republic and Germany, has been England's standout performer.

"The best two teams in the tournament have reached the final, and it is going to be an incredibly tight game," Shearer wrote in his column for BBC Sport as he previewed the final.

"Italy have gone 33 games without losing which shows how strong they are. They have got the same sort of togetherness in their squad that we have,.

"But England have put in some extremely good performances too, and so many of our players have done their bit when it has mattered.

"It was Harry Kane who put us into the final with the winner on Wednesday and he was excellent for the whole game. So was Harry Maguire, and the rest of our back four too.

"The best player on the park, though, was Raheem Sterling. He was unplayable at times and it was probably his finest game in an England shirt.

"More of the same from Sterling on Sunday, and we have got one hell of a chance.

"The other thing we have got going for us, of course, is the Wembley crowd. There will be more than 65,000 fans again at the final, and the majority of them will be behind England.

"They were immense against Denmark and stuck with the team when they were 1-0 down. The players fed off their intensity when they turned things around."

 

Shearer also paid tribute to manager Gareth Southgate, who was ecstatic on the pitch after the victory over Denmark.

Southgate has made some heavily debated calls in the tournament - including restricting flair players Jack Grealish, Phil Foden and Jadon Sancho to limited roles – but has led England to their first final for 55 years.

Shearer added: "There are several reasons why I will believe in this England team when they walk out at Wembley on Sunday, and Southgate is the biggest one.

"He's led his team brilliantly in every way since Euro 2020 started and not only has he made some big decisions, he has got all of them right.

"It's easier being a player than a supporter in the stands and, like many of you, I've found it hard in the past few weeks watching on as an England fan when our games have been in the balance.

"Just imagine how tough it is for Gareth, though. As England manager he has got 60 million people on his back because he carries the hopes of all of us, the entire nation.

"There is so much scrutiny on every single call he makes, and then he has to stand alone on the touchline waiting for them to work.

"So I could understand his relief and his reaction at the end of the Denmark game when he let his emotions pour out. He did that because he feels the same way we do when we win.

"Whatever happens next, he has given us so much joy and happiness - but I'm desperate to see that same celebration again from him on Sunday night."

 

Resurgent forward Kane will lead the line for England and he has been directly involved in 28 goals in his past 27 international appearances (19 goals and nine assists).

He has already caught and surpassed the goal total recorded by Shearer (nine) at major tournaments.

One more strike will see him become England’s outright highest goalscorer in the World Cup and Euros – he is currently level with Gary Lineker on 10.

England won the World Cup in 1966 as hosts, but each of the previous two European host nation finalists in a major tournament have lost – Portugal in Euro 2004 and France at the 2016 tournament.

Kyle Walker feels England have set the bar for future generations at Euro 2020 following decades of disappointment and is convinced a rediscovered sense of national pride in the team has inspired them.

England beat Denmark 2-1 after extra time on Wednesday to secure a first ever appearance in the European Championship final, having not reached the showpiece of any major international tournament since winning the World Cup in 1966.

That 55-year period is the longest gap between major finals for any European nation, and now only Italy stand between England and the trophy.

The closest England had ever got to winning the competition before 2021 was in 1996 when they fell at the semi-finals stage, with the so-called 'Golden Generation' that followed defined by their underachievement as they never got beyond a quarter-final at the World Cup or Euros.

But under Gareth Southgate there have been strong hints of change, as they finished fourth at Russia 2018 and then also reached the semi-finals of the inaugural Nations League, and Walker believes the team's mentality is finally becoming aligned with the expectations of supporters.

"I think when you put on an England shirt – definitely in the past four years – it means something now," Walker told the FA's YouTube channel.

 

"I have heard a lot of people talking about how England haven't won a knockout game, England haven't won a penalty shoot-out, England haven't got this, England haven't got that.

"This group of lads – with the manager and the coaching staff – we just keep knocking them down and we have set the bar now for the future youngsters that are coming through.

"This is what our country wants and expects of us."

England will, of course, be considered "hosts" for the final given it – like all but one of their previous Euro 2020 games – will be played at Wembley, and there are certain advantages attached to that.

Although the past two host-nation finalists (Portugal at Euro 2004 and France at Euro 2016) of a major tournament lost the decider, prior to 2004 only Sweden (1958 World Cup) had been beaten during a final on their own turf.

The omens are generally positive for the Three Lions, who have won 15 and lost just one of their previous 17 matches at Wembley. While Italy will likely pose a challenge greater than most of the opponents in that run, Walker feels it gives England an edge – and he will not entertain back-handed comments about their status as hosts.

"These emotions and these types of games grab hold of you," he said. "We want one more effort from the fans – because that 12th man is vital.

"I hear people complaining now that England have got an advantage playing at home. But we never complained when we played certain people in their back yard, it is just the rub of the green."

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