By Peter Hall
LONDON (Reuters) - For a player of Marco Verratti's quality, it is remarkable that he has had to wait until the age of 28 to make his major tournament knockout-stage bow.
The Paris St Germain midfielder was cut from Italy's final Euro 2012 squad, the Azzurri, along with England, were knocked out in the group stage at the 2014 World Cup, before Verratti missed the entire Euro 2016 tournament through injury.
Things went from bad to worse for Verratti on the international stage as Italy failed to qualify for a World Cup for the first time in 60 years in 2018, before the coronavirus pandemic put Euro 2020 on hold.
Another injury meant Verratti faced the prospect of missing out this year, but finally, having battled back to fitness, he is playing a starring role in the knockout stages, and poses a unique threat to England ahead of Sunday's Euro 2020 final at Wembley.
"Three or four days after the injury I thought I would not be fit for the tournament," Verratti told a news conference this week.
"The nightmare of missing Euro 2016 came back but thanks to the national team medical staff I was able to play this time, and do so in excellent condition."
Since regaining his fitness and winning his place back in the Italy side, Verratti has played like he is making up for lost time.
Not only has he won more tackles than any of his international team mates, Verratti is also the Azzurri's most prolific creator, having laid on more chances than any other Italy player, with only Belgium's Kevin De Bruyne creating more openings at Euro 2020.
MANCINI'S BIG CALL
As Verratti was busy battling back from injury, the man standing in for him was more than making the most of his chance.
Manuel Locatelli was in inspired form, scoring twice as Italy made it two wins from two in Group A with a 3-0 victory over Switzerland on June 16.
Verratti started Italy's final Group A match against Wales, but was part of Roberto Mancini's shuffled pack, with the Azzurri coach giving several other squad players a chance given they had already secured qualification for the last 16.
The big call came when Mancini had to pick between Verratti and the in-form Locatelli for the knockout match against Austria.
"Am I now undroppable? No, I don't think so," Locatelli told Rai Sport after the Switzerland win. "I hope Marco Verratti can return, he is a champion who can make a difference.
"The coach has to make his choices."
Italian newspaper Gazzetta dello Sport ran a poll asking for fans to pick who they would choose, with Locatelli coming out on top, while several other experts predicted Mancini would overlook Verratti.
Mancini instead took a gamble on Verratti for the Austria clash, given the Wales match was the first game the PSG midfielder had played since the beginning of May, but Verratti, and his manager, have not looked back since.
The Italy midfield three is now set in stone. Jorginho brings the control in the anchor role, while Inter Milan's Nicolo Barella adds the flair.
Verratti, as the stats show, is a midfielder whose role is hard to define. He has not played like a man who had to overcome an injury before getting going this summer, and his ability to be ubiquitous makes him difficult to mark.
England midfield anchor pair of Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips have drawn much praise for their performances at the Euros, but on Sunday, they will be firmly tested by the man who can do it all.
(Reporting by Peter Hall; Editing by Toby Davis)