So, then, to Kiev and to the quarter-finals of the European Championships. It’s the final match of the round this evening, featuring an Italian side that is something of a curates egg, excellent against Spain in matching them every inch of the way before being slightly underwhelming against Croatia and The Republic of Ireland, whilst England remain somewhat enigmatic, decent enough in fits and starts but also a little lucky in places and, for fifteen minutes against Sweden nine days ago, almost apocalyptically disorganised. The history books say Italy, who have a considerably better record against England than many realise due to the infrequency with which the two sides have played each other over the years, but England have showed considerable character over the last few weeks and this match felt, prior to kick-off, difficult to call.
After three largely uninspiring quarter-final matches, though, this one gets off to a flying start when, with less than three minutes played, Daniele De Rossi allows a cross-field pass across his body and delivers a magnificent, swerving twenty-five yard volley which thids off the inside of the post and out. Italy fail, initially at least, to take advantage of this strong start and within a couple of minutes England create a chance of their own at the other end of the pitch when James Milner crosses from the right and Glen Johnson, of all people, finds himself eight yards from goal and with only Gianluigi Buffon to beat, but he scoops his shot only just to the left of the goalkeeper, who makes a fine, one-handed save. England continue to dominate possession for the next ten minutes or so, with Buffon opting to punch an Ashley Young cross, which results in a moment in which we’re not certain where the ball might end up. A low cross from the left for Rooney is bundled behind by either him or the man that clatters into him at the same time, Abate.
As the half progresses, however, a familiar pattern begins to show. England are struggling – really, really struggling – to keep hold of possession and this profligacy suits Italy down to the ground. A through-ball finds the England central defence absent without leave and Balotelli’s shot is charged down by the onrushing John Terry. At the other end of the pitch, a smart England break ends with Rooney finding Danny Welbeck in space on the edge of the penalty area, but Welbeck opts fot the top corner, misjudges it and shoots narrowly high and wide. Cassano shoots from distance and Joe Hart, who looked for a moment as if he might be going the wrong way, recovers and saves the shot, and with four minutes of the half left to play a header into the penalty area seems destined to fall for Balotelli, but Joleon Lescott gets in front of him and smuggles the ball to safety. By the end of the first half, it feels as if England will be considerably more relieved to hear the referees whistle. A poor start followed by a decent recovery which faded away as they struggled to keep hold of the ball and retreated deeper and deeper towards their own penalty area.
Three minutes into the second half, England get another let off. Harts punch is a reasonably good one, but the ball is lofted back into the penalty area for De Rossi, five yards out and at only a slight angle to the goal, but he completely mis-kicks and the ball bounces harmlessly wide of the goal. Within another three minutes, Marchisios shot from thirty yards is beaten out by Hart. Balotelli receives the rebound, swivels and shoots, but a fine reaction save from Hart keeps it out again. The ball, which has suddenly and unexpectedly taken on the qualities of a pinball, now bounces to Montolivo, who shoots wildly over the crossbar. The second half, then, has started in much the same as the first half ended. England look threatening when they do get forward, but their inability to keep hold of the ball means that these threats are few and far between. For Italy, though, it seems like only a matter of time before they finally do grab the lead.
Roy Hodgsons reaction to this poor start to the second half is to shuffle his pack, with Milner and Welbeck making way for Andy Carroll and Theo Walcott. It doesn’t feel like the right decision – Young has been anonymous and Rooney is still clearly out of sorts – but within a couple of minutes England create a decent chance, when a ball into the penalty area from Walcott is flicked on by Carroll and falls for Young, whose shot is deflected wide. Still, though, all that Italy have to do is stand back and wait, and the ball will eventually come to their feet. England are showing real technical deficiences, and it is this that proving to be the major difference between the two sides. With fourteen minutes to play, though, a set-piece nearly breaks the deadlock, with a Steven Gerrard free-kick finding Wayne Rooney, who has shaken off his marker, but he misjudges completely and the ball bounces harmlessly through to Buffon. If Wayne Rooney had Danny Welbecks hair, he might have scored, there.
With a little over ten minutes to play come two quick substitutions for Italy, with Antonio Cassano being replaced by Alessandro Diamanti and then, a couple of minutes later, Daniele De Rossi making way for Antonio Nocerino, and within a couple of minutes a low shot from Diamanti forces Hart across his goal to save. With less than two minutes to play, however, comes another let-off at the other end of the pitch when a superb through-ball from Pirlo, who has been by some distance the best player on the pitch tonight finds Nocerino, but his shot from eight yards out is charged down by Glen Johnson. In stoppage-time at the end of the match, meanwhile, shortly after Ignazio Abate has been replaced by Christian Maggio, Ashley Cole gets to the by-line and crosses. The ball is too deep, but Andy Carroll reaches it and heads back across the goal for Rooney, but his over-head kick flies harmlessly over the crossbar. For the first time at this tournament, we’ve had a goalless ninety minutes, and now there will be another thirty minutes of extra-time.
The start of extra-time brings a third England change – Scott Parker, who is more or less out on his feet, for Jordan Henderson (a player whose name it is impossible not to say in the manner of a WWF announcer) – and within a couple of minutes a Gerrard free-kick causes momentary panic in the Italian defence before the linesmans flag brings the proceedings to a halt. As we might expect, the first period of extra-time is scruffier than the first, but with four minutes to play Diamanti curls in a cross-cum-shot which squeezes through everybody and bounces out of the right-hand side of the right-hand post. A cross from Theo Walcott which is slightly over-hit and drops just wide of the far post brings the half to a close. England are hanging on by the length of their fingernail. The audience at home, meanwhile, have no fingernails left.
Into the second period ofextra-time, Italy encamp themselves in and around the England penalty area with Sherpa Rooney the sole representative for England in an attacking position. It might be suggested that it would, considering Englands record in penalty shoot-outs, be unwise for them to trying to run the clock down, but the truth of the matter is that they are simply being overrun by an Italian team that is passing the ball around them with such ease that the fact that they have gone for more than one hundred and five minutes without scoring is an absolute mystery. With six minutes to play, Joe Harts net finally bulges when a cross from the right from Diamanti is met by a stooping header from Marchisio, but the linesmans flag is raised immediately and the agony – for both England and Italy – continues.
We all know what happens next, of course. Montolivio drags his shot wide, but Pirlo Panenkas the ball down the middle, Ashley Youngs drives his kick against the crossbar, Ashley Coles low shot is saved by Buffon and that, as they say, is that. It would have been desperately unlucky for Italy had the outcome not ended as it did, and Roy Hodgson and England can at least take some heart from getting as far as they did with a squad with such obvious limitations and with a build-up that was more chaotic than the best fiction writer could have imagined. Ultimately, the difference – the gap that English football has to make up – was on display for the entire one hundred and twenty minutes as well as the penalty shoot-out itself. In terms of pure technical ability, the pure ability to treat the ball as a friend, to win and maintain possession, the four teams now left in the competition leave England standing, and we knew this all along. Still, England got through the group stages and took Italy all the way. It certainly wasn’t pretty, and determination counts for something. Bringing through young players of a similar standard to this, however, may take more than ten years and it may never happen at all.
And on that note, a very familiar note, Englands Euro 2012 comes to an end. Italy, if they can sort themselves out in front of goal, have every chance of giving Germany a game next week in the semi-finals, and neither of those two teams will be as bothered about playing either Spain or Portugal in the final as the teams that have already played them have seemed to be. The remainder of this summers European Championships remain very much up for grabs, and any of the remaining teams in the competitions – which have demonstrated the lopsidedness of the original draw in coming from just two groups – could yet win it. Stay tuned. This tournament is far from over just because England are out of it.
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