Once, when he was Manchester City manager, Roberto Mancini was asked if he would like to take charge of England one day. The Italian replied in the affirmative.

"It can happen if they want to win,” he responded, blissfully unaware that eight years and five months from making his claim he would be seeking to prevent them from doing just that in their first major final in 55 years. “It does appeal. And if I am managing England and win the World Cup or the European Championship I want to be knighted. No statue, but a knighthood is enough."

Mancini already has a knighthood, one for services to the Italian Republic, having been made a Cavaliere Ordine al Merito della Repubblica Italiana in 1991 for his exploits with Sampdoria in winning the scudetto that year. The award has five divisions in order of importance of which Mancini's is in the fifth. Perhaps he might be upgraded a couple of notches should he depart London with the Henri Delaunay trophy stuffed inside his Giorgio Armani suitcase this evening. Maybe then a bust in a piazza in Rome – not London – might follow, too.

To put Italy's best sculptors and the legislators in il Parlamento Italiano on alert he must win at Wembley, the place where he has already lost one other major final – the 1992 European Cup against Barcelona. He has lanced the boil since, lifting an FA Cup with Manchester City in 2011 while two of Italy's knockout victories at Euro 2020 have come at the venue. Nevertheless, the circumstances will be different this evening. The hardy band of 1000 Azzurri supporters shuttled into London this weekend will represent a mere speck among an expectant home support that will touch 57,000.

Mancini will not shirk the challenge. His is a team that has played in an English manner, infusing the best elements of Liverpool's pressing system – albeit German in inception – with those rugged defensive tactics we so readily assort with the Azzurri. It has a club-like quality to it all and perhaps that is no surprise because of the Sampdoria connection among his backroom staff, but there are also other explanations: there is a lack of a prima donna, or a galactico and, as such, it has been a collective effort. Mancini never played at a World Cup finals. It was a set of circumstances in part due to his own making, the teenage playmaker once went on an all-nighter in Manhattan during Italy's tour of North America in 1984 and was subsequently dropped from Enzo Bearzot's squad but it nevertheless confounds him – and so he has endeavoured to ensure each of his squad is no mere stand-in. During the group stage, no manager used more of his squad than the 56-year-old.

In more frazzled days at City, he had to fend off repeated questions about his status at the club. He once lost the plot in a press conference when asked about speculation that Manuel Pellegrini was being lined up as his successor.

"F*****g hell," he replied. "I can't continue to answer questions about this."

The asterisk still sits beside Mancini's name and so it is understandable that he might be grizzly. The sleights have followed him into his managerial career: at City, his success was merely a result of the wealth of the Abu Dhabi ownership; at Inter Milan, he won three Serie A titles in the aftermath of the Calciopoli scandal when Juventus were stripped of one title but – so the claim goes – the Nerazzuri had an easier route to the scudetto in subsequent seasons due to Juve's absence as credible contenders.

Winning the European Championship would afford Mancini the chance to erase the asterisk. Since he succeeded Gian Piero Ventura as head coach in 2018 following the failure to qualify for the World Cup, his side have lost just once. The renaissance project carried out in that time has been staggering.

Italy have been the best team at these finals, despite what you might have read and heard elsewhere. In the past month, they have stuck a combined seven goals past Czech Republic (a pre-tournament friendly) and Switzerland – two of the quarter-finalists at the Euros – and defeated hotly fancied Belgium. In seeing off Spain in their semi-final, they were recording their 33rd game without defeat thus extending a record that had stood since the 1930s but more significantly edging out a team that could play around the press in the way that others cannot. Mancini has forged a tactical system with multiple strategies and, well, here we are.

But they know, too, that the best team does not always win. They talk conspiratorially on the terraces about the arbitro venduto (the crooked ref) in Italian football, it is an acknowledgment of the age-old custom of clientelism in the country's politics where favours are done by barter system. Italy captain Giorgio Chiellini has tapped into the siege mentality in recent days by declaring mischievously that he knew England would reach the European Championship final because they have enjoyed home advantage throughout. For all that this new Italy has emanated panache, they cannot and will not forget their past. Certainly not when there are psychological edges to be hewn.

In Scotland, there is a split over those who want Italy to prevail and those who want England to end their long wait for a trophy. For the 70,000-plus Scots with Italian ancestry, support for the Azzurri is less about getting one up on England, than celebrating a shared identity.

In the Italy camp itself, the attritional nature of this evening's final is underplayed. Mancini, after all, is a changed man since his days at City.

It speaks to a more mellow, Zen-like individual, who makes regular pilgrimages to the holy site of Medjugorje and the Hill of Apparitions in Bosnia.

"Faith has helped me a lot, I’m not talking about my career but my personal life,” he said in an interview with Goal. “Our Lady and the Lord have more important work to see to than my job in football.”

It might only have been a decade since he was bringing his sartorial elegance to the touchlines of Premier League grounds in England but gone is the irascible character of the past who once said: “I like being a manager. I like being angry every day'

Two of his backroom staff, Gianluca Vialli and Atillio Lombardo, were members of that title-winning Sampdoria side but the connections to the Genoese club extend the whole way along the sideline. Take Alberico Evani, the unmistakable bespectacled, moustachioed figure who sits alongside Mancini on the bench. Evani has been lampooned on social media as the loafer-selling Italian tailor but this was once a formidable left-sided midfielder who made more than 250 appearances for the great Milan side of the late-1980s and played in the 1994 World Cup final when Italy lost out to Brazil on penalties. While storied names such as Franco Baresi and Roberto Baggio put their kicks over the same side of the bar, Evani did not muck about blasting his own down the middle.

A hallmark of Italy at these championship is their sense of solidity and togetherness, a cohesiveness that lends weight to Mancini's decision to draw all of his staff from those whom he knew at Samp – with the exception of Daniel de Rossi – the former captain, who provides the connection with the 2006 World Cup winning team. In providing the ideal conditions to prosper, no stone has been left unturned.

Mancini's stated goal upon taking up the job was to restore them to the top of the world game. Lifting the Henri Delaunay would be a significant next step on the road to achieving that aim. Serious business is the modus operandi of the Azzurri in 2021 but so, too, is a happy environment.

“We will have to fight until the end,” said Mancini on Friday of the task that awaits his team. “You cannot play a tense football match, nervous. You have to play with the right pressure, really trying to have fun. Only then do you win a final.”

Maybe, then, he might just get that statue...