England’s record in major tournaments against the established major football nations is looking worse and worse as more tournaments outside of our own country pass into history. But tonight’s quarter-final against Italy offered a chance to test out a different approach against excellent opposition and find out just how much more than the sum of its parts Roy Hodgson’s team could be.
Sadly, the English take on a traditionally Italian strategy wasn’t quite up to scratch this evening, for despite England’s clean sheet Cesare Prandelli’s side should have been home and dry inside 90 minutes. But they didn’t take their chances, opting instead to put England through the pain of penalties. Some things never change.
England 0-0 Italy (aet) (Quarter-Final)
Italy win 4-2 on penalties
England were glad to reach half time at 0-0 because of a late first half flurry of attacks by the Italians, but it was anything but a one-sided game. England played very well in the first half, and when Daniele de Rossi and Glen Johnson exchanged chances – the Italy midfielder’s shot hit the post and Johnson’s effort was blocked by Gigi Buffon – it looked like anybody’s game. Steven Gerrard had a great first half in midfield and Danny Welbeck looked sharped up front, while England were more dangerous on the break than at any other point in the tournament.
But the openings were there for Italy, most notably resulting from a repeated pass over the top and into the channels that caused England’s defence problems. By and large, John Terry and Joleon Lescott were equal to it and, while some of their defending was last-ditch in nature, most of it was sound. Mario Balotelli was lively, though, and had a string of chances and half-chances that should have seen him on the scoresheet.
Andrea Pirlo had been identified in the Match of the Day studio as Italy’s key player and he was given the appropriate attention in the middle. James Milner picked up the Juventus playmaker or Claudio Marchisio depending on the situation, with England seemingly happy enough to give Federico Balzaretti the freedom of Italy’s left wing and allow plenty of the ball to come his way.
The second half was dominated by the Azzurri, following the same pattern as the last fifteen minutes of the first. England were very poor at times, giving the ball away far too easily and inviting endless pressure from their opponents. Ashley Young was disappointing again, but James Milner was marginally brighter before he was substituted than he had been previously. Milner was withdrawn to make room for Theo Walcott after an hour, and Walcott showed form in patches but was part of an attacking corps that simply wasn’t in the game.
Big chances were missed with alarming frequency by an Italy side beautifully conducted by the ever lyrical Pirlo. De Rossi’s squandered volley was the worst of them, but Balotelli and Riccardo Montolivo were also guilty of wasting opportunities. Italy had more craft and more class than England, who were doing nothing more than holding on for the vast majority of the match. Terry, Lescott and Johnson were crucial factors in that resistance, and Terry was in the right place on several vital occasions.
England tried to nick it in style in stoppage time with a fantastic attacking move that resulted in a knock-down by substitute Andy Carroll for Wayne Rooney, whose bicycle kick came off the tips of his toes and flew harmlessly over Buffon’s crossbar.
Extra time came and went, with England digging in and defending doggedly but doing nothing going forward. Italy controlled the game, and as England tired they had an increasing amount of time on the ball. This time it was Italy who came close to grabbing a late winner, but Antonio Nocerino’s diving header was correctly ruled out for offside.
And so to the inevitable spontaneous inhumane combustion that is England in a penalty shoot-out. Mario Balotelli and Gerrard swapped perfect strikes before England took the advantage thanks to Montolivo’s miss and Rooney’s goal. Pirlo was up next and went for as pretty a Panenka as you’ll ever see, turning the shoot-out on its head. The attempts from Young (rubbish at penalties) and Ashley Cole (not rubbish at penalties) were woeful and Alessandro Diamanti kept his cool to finish off England.
Italy move on to face Germany in the semi-finals, while England head home with plenty to think about but little of which to be ashamed other than Hart’s goal-line silliness during the shoot-out; it’s great when it works, big man.