Italian stallions break the English resistance

Euro 2012

Italian stallions break the English resistance.

England v Italy was expected to be the least entertaining of the quarter-finals and so it proved.

A largely turgid tale of massed English defending and missed Italian chances was put out of its misery by a penalty shoot-out, won 4-2 by the Azzurri, after Ashleys Cole and Young fluffed their spot-kicks for England.

Pre-match expectations of a level playing-field seemed correct as Italy struck the woodwork in the opening minutes through Daniele De Rossi and Glen Johnson almost netted at the other end. England had some delightful touches, but as the first half wore on Italy began to control the midfield.

The second half and extra-time saw Italy firmly bossing the game and England reverting to a siege mentality. England's two banks of four and one forward tracking back resembled table football in its rigid formation, but succeeded in not conceding. The Three Lions offered no attacking threat to Italy as recompense and Gianluigi Buffon enjoyed a pleasant summer evening in Kiev. Penalties were certain.

Andrea Pirlo was by far the best player of the evening, his telegraphed passes and elegant playmaking a joy to admire. Italy used the flanks well, Ignazio Abate whipping in dangerous crosses, while Mario Balotelli sprang the England offside trap on a number of occasions. Riccardo Montolivo was a roving danger, while subsitutes Alessandro Diamante and Antonio Nocerino proved more effective than England's Andy Carroll and Theo Walcott.

For the Three Lions, Joe Hart's acrobatics and John Terry's lionheart defending saved many a goal and Steven Gerrard ran his socks off as usual, but Glen Johnson made some key errors and Ashley Young again was anonymous, as if the switch from Fabio Capello's 4-3-2-1 to Roy Hodgson's 4-4-2 has unnerved England's best player from qualifying.

England were afraid of committing men upfield, which left their players isolated when they won the ball, leading to yet more Italian possession.

Italy looked a little fitter, but extra-time and two days less rest than Germany may tell come Thursday's semi-final.

That said, a well-drilled Italian team with some dangerous elements should not be written off, no more than their World Cup winning teams of 1982 and 2006 should have been in the opening rounds of those competitions.

For Hodgson, the real work starts now with overseeing the national training centre project, 2014 World Cup qualification and hopefully, an overhaul of the national playing style. England have fallen short so many times playing their natural attacking game it was time to try a different approach.

For the first time, England approached a tournament with low public expectations and playing safety first, if not catenaccio, aiming for penalties by the knock-out stages. But against Italy they failed to apply Walcott's speed on the counter while their other flying wingman Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was left on the bench. The statistics for passing and possession tell a shocking story. Plan B worked up to a point.

Going forward, England will have to open up, pass more and hold the ball longer. Jack Wilshere is hopefully the first of a new generation to have learnt this.

An exit is always depressing, but England should take inspiration from Germany, who were abject at Euro 2000 but overhauled their country's coaching and brought through a new generation of players to become the awesome team they are in 2012.


Weds, Donetsk: Portugal v Spain

Thu, Warsaw: Germany v Italy

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(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile


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