Harry Kane's fabulous form and Italy's struggles add to drama ahead of Euro 2024
The reigning champions of Europe can book their hotels, scope out training venues, and, if they are wise, schedule some practice at taking and saving penalties.
Italy, who won the final of Euro 2020 in a shoot-out, are so locked into the habit of seeing their fortunes decided by late, suspense-heavy outcomes they should anticipate some nervous finishes if they go deep into Euro 2024.
On Monday in Leverkusen, the latest adopted "home" ground of Ukraine’s exiled national team, Italians anxiously anticipated penalty drama as they scraped towards qualifying for next summer’s European championship.
Italy were drawing 0-0 with Ukraine, needing a point to assure progress but at risk of being pushed below their opponents into Group C’s third place and into a spring play-off were they to lose.
In the 93rd minute, Mykhailo Mudryk appeared to be tripped, inside the Italy penalty area, by Bryan Cristante. No foul was given, no VAR referral made. Ukraine were outraged. After the final whistle, Italy’s goalkeeper Gianluigi Donarumma admitted: “Having looked at the video, it [a penalty] could have been awarded.”
The incident will linger in Ukrainian minds until the March play-offs. In Italian minds, there is lasting relief that, in their agonising sequence of cliffhangers over the last six years, this one, like the Euro 2020 final, blessed them.
Azzurri supporters have watched the national team fail in play-offs to reach both of the last two World Cups, Donnarumma bearing heavy criticism for the very late North Macedonia goal that denied Italy a place at Qatar 2022.
Then again, perhaps the giant keeper would have saved a Ukraine spot-kick. He has a sound record facing high-pressure penalties. Two Donnarumma saves in the shoot-out at