Italy’s old guard Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci will have the task of stopping English ‘youngsters’ Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling in the Euro 2020 final in London on Sunday.
The Juventus centre-backs are the only survivors of Italy’s 4-0 final loss to Spain in Euro 2012, and central to the side Roberto Mancini’s reconstructed after the Azzurri failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup campaign behind them.
Both Chiellini and Bonucci were on the pitch during the low of their play-off defeat by Sweden in November 2017 when they failed to qualify for the World Cup in 60 years.
“The will to rebuild was immense. We managed to transform the disappointment into enthusiasm and the desire to do well,” said captain Chiellini.
“It is a dream that we have cultivated in the last three years, we carry it with us. The coach instilled it in our heads until it became reality.
“At the beginning when he said we had to think about winning the European Championship we too thought he was crazy. Instead we managed to get there and now the last centimetre is missing.”
In Italy’s new-look young side, 36-year-old Chiellini and 34-year-old Bonucci, who between them boast 219 caps, are the centre-back pairing of choice.
The duo have cultivated their art during a decade together at Juventus, apart from a brief ill-fated season-long spell Bonucci spent at AC Milan three years ago.
“Chiellini and Bonucci are two monsters, monumental,” said Italy’s former World Cup winner Andrea Barzagli, the third pillar in Juve’s famed ‘BBC’ (Bonucci, Barzagli, Chiellini) defensive partnership until he retired in 2019.
“They are the cornerstone of the national team. They still play at a very high level and then, when you need someone to do the barking…”
Jose Mourinho lauded a pair who could give “a masterclass in defending at Harvard University” after his Manchester United side fell to a Champions League defeat in Turin.
“Mourinho’s compliments pleased us, they make us think of how much good we had done in our career,” said Bonucci on Friday. “(But) every game you have to prove you are strong, a team”.
Bonucci has so far had an almost perfect European campaign, one of two Italian outfield players, along with Jorginho, to have started in all six matches.
When not injured Chiellini, is Italy’s top defender.
Chiellini returned after missing two Euro matches with a thigh injury. He was replaced by Lazio’s Francesco Acerbi.
Both are looking for their first trophy with Italy who won the European title in 1968.
‘Youngsters against old men’
After seeing off two 28-year-old central strikers in Belgium’s Romelu Lukaku and Spain substitute Alvaro Morata, Italy now face 27-year-old Harry Kane.
“Youngsters against old men…” smiled Bonucci.
“Kane? We’re not discovering him now, it’s been years that he’s being doing good things with Tottenham, England.
“In the last three matches we’ve been lucky to come up against the three best strikers in the world. It’s just an added motivation not to concede anything.
“We know the difficulties they can give us and we will have to be careful about their speed.”
Kane, Chiellini added, “is a player that I have always liked very much. I remember one of his first appearances in the national team, we played in Turin against England and he immediately made a huge impression on me”.
“But England is not only him, they have exceptional players on the flanks.
“Their bench alone could win the European Championship – Grealish, Sancho, Rashford, Calvert-Lewin, Foden. It will be a great match.
“Because we too have great quality.”
Whatever the outcome on Sunday in Wembley it will not have an impact on the friendship of the veteran defenders.
“We finish the 12th (July) and meet again on the 14th to go on holidays together,” said Bonucci. “That says it all about our relationship on and off the pitch.”