It was one of those evenings that seemed ideal for a game of football. The weather was neither hot nor cold. The grey sky gave no excuses for losing sight of the ball against a setting sun or floodlights. The pitch at the MSK Žilina stadium was not far short of perfection, with the ball zipping nicely off a surface which had lapped up some heavy rain a couple of days before the final. UEFA President Michel Platini and former Slovakia President Rudolf Schuster were among a crowd which was numerous enough to offer vocal encouragement to both teams. The occasion had all the ingredients except one – for the first time in 11 years, the final failed to produce a goal.
The pre-match images certainly projected will-to-win. The Italian bench stood, arms entwined, as the players sang the national anthem. To their right, the Russian staff showed similar fraternity, though with head coach Dmitri Khomukha a metre ahead of his colleagues in the technical area. As the teams had met six days previously in the group stage, their preparations had been based on first-hand experience. A surprise factor was going to be hard to find.
The Russians remained faithful to their 4-3-3 formation with Rifat Zhemaletdinov making his first start at the expense of Aleksandr Makarov on the right wing. Daniele Zoratto fielded the team which had started the semi-final against Slovakia but made a structural adjustment that converted the middle line of his 4-4-2 into more of a diamond than a flat line. His ploy of pushing a man forward to stifle the playmaking qualities of screening midfielder Sergei Makarov was immediately effective. With blue shirts flooding exuberantly forward, Luca Vido tried his luck with a long-range shot and a canny through ball to Demetrio Steffè obliged gold-shirted goalkeeper Anton Mitryushkin to get out and down at top speed. Alberto Cerri shot wide after controlling the ball on his chest; Andrea Palazzi stole possession and played another dangerous through ball; there was a delightful combination on the left between full-back Federico Dimarco and winger Steffè; and central defender Elio Capradossi, always a threat at set plays, came close with a header from a corner.
All this was during an opening quarter-hour of Italian monologue. The only word that the Russian team could get in edgeways was when Giacomo Sciacca misjudged a high ball and gave striker Ramil Sheydaev a sniff of an opening. Otherwise, the Russian No19 expended calories on unrewarded high-speed pressurising runs at defenders or goalkeeper and it was not until the twilight phase of the game that he managed to get foot to ball in a potentially dangerous area.
The Russians focused on keeping their heads above water against a rising tide. Italy’s waves of attack were based on fluent combination moves through midfield; regular supply to the wings with a lot of support from the full-backs – especially Dimarco on the left – and the menacing physical presence of striker Alberto Cerri. Defensively, the cutting edge of their midfield diamond pre-empted Russian sorties – to the extent that the accomplished left-footed centre-back Dzhamaldin Khodzhaniyazov found himself obliged to backtrack and pass the ball to his keeper six times in a short period of time while trying to find pathways for his trademark sorties into midfield. Unusually, the keeper had more possession than some of his outfielders.
Khomukha transmitted body-language tranquillity. But he had plenty to shout about as his team struggled to stem the tide. To his left, the normally vociferous Daniele Zoratto could allow himself a degree of satisfaction – his only moment of anxiety coming when goalkeeper Simone Scuffet stumbled on a back pass and was obliged to slice the ball away for a corner. Or when the Russians were allowed within shooting range via a set play. Otherwise, the closing phases of the first half provided images of Italy probing with through passes and Russians lunging across to hook them away or look anxiously to their goalkeeper. Long clearances towards the wingers were like feeding bread to ducks – they were gobbled up and the Italians immediately came back for more. When the Greek referee blew the whistle for half-time, the Russians had been on the back foot for 40 minutes – but the back foot had held firm.
During the interval, Khomukha made a straight man-for-man change on his right wing but, nine minutes later, he made a more significant move by sending on striker Aleksei Gasilin for left-winger Alexander Zuev, with a view to offering a twin target to the upfield passes and improving on the low ratio of second-ball effectiveness. Russia got a foot into the game in terms of progress into Italian territory and the crispness of Italian passing during the first half was dampened when periods of play boiled down to competing for a bouncing ball.
With the full quota of substitutions producing no structural changes, the game faded with the Slovakian daylight. The Italians were thwarted by the reflexes of the Russian keeper – notably when Cerri produced a sweet lay-off for the lively Luca Vido to bear in on goal – and by some off-target finishing. Russia emerged from their shell with a period of approximate danger in the Italian box, but without giving Scuffet reason for seeking the panic button. When the referee signalled the end of the 80 minutes, Russia had still not produced a shot on target.
But, high on the list of Russian virtues was the mental strength they had displayed during a stressful semi-final against Sweden, the battle for survival against Italy and, above all, the marathon penalty shoot-out which had secured their place in the final. As the coaches prepared their pecking-orders for the shoot-out, one could sense Russian conviction that, having survived thus far, they were going to find a knockout blow.
Mitryushkin, having conceded one goal in the entire tournament, put his fist to the table by saving Italy's first penalty, from substitute Davide De Molfetta. When he also saved the third from Sciacca, there were reasons to start tying a red ribbon on the trophy. But Scuffet saved two of the following three Russian spot kicks to take the shoot-out into sudden-death mode. Mitryushkin threw himself to his left to save the 13th penalty from Andrea Palazzi and Sergei Makarov encapsulated the Russian team's psychological fortitude by calmly striking the decisive effort.
Russian joy was further fuelled by the sense of disbelief that they were champions of Europe despite winning only one match. While they crossed the pitch to dance in front of their fans, they sportingly paused to console Italian midfielders Mario Pugliese and Palazzi, still weeping disconsolately in the middle of the playing surface as if not wishing to believe that the final was over – and lost. Zoratto's team had won on points; but Khomukha's team had delivered a knockout blow from the penalty mark.