England 0 Italy 0: Lessons learned as the Azzurri triumph on penalties
What did we learn as Italy triumph 4-2 on penalties after extra-time to send England home from Euro 2012?
Italy are deserved winners
After 120 minutes of Italian domination, England will have welcomed the prospect of penalties and the chance to set up a last-four meeting with Germany. Both teams had a poor record in shootouts at European championships and World Cups – Italy were victorious twice in seven attempts, while England have managed to win just once at Euro ’96. The pressure was on Joe Hart, a player with confidence in abundance, but he failed to save a single shot despite his best attempts to distract Italy’s spot-kick takers. Steven Gerrard matched Mario Balotelli’s clinical effort, and after Riccardo Montolivo dragged his attempt wide, Roy Hodgson’s side had the initiative. But the decision to entrust Ashley Young with a kick was folly, and he crashed his effort against the crossbar. It handed momentum back to the Azzurri, and Gianluigi Buffon’s save from Ashley Cole left former West Ham United midfielder Alessandro Diamanti with the chance to send Italy into the next round, and the Bologna man delivered. It was fitting reward for Cesare Prandelli’s side who were deserved winners – reflected by their tally of tally of 833 passes to England’s 364, with Italy enjoying 68 per cent of possession. Next up for them is a difficult clash against Germany for a place in the final, while for Hodgson, the building blocks are in place after his side surprised many with a plucky showing at Euro 2012.
Open start flatters to deceive
Touted to be a dull quarter-final between two of Euro 2012’s most defensive outfits, it was a surprisingly open start in Kiev. Italy initially seized control of the final last-eight tie, and Daniele De Rossi came close to a goal in the third minute. Ignazio Abate’s burst down the right culminated in a cross to De Rossi, and the midfielder brazenly cut across the ball to produce a magnificent strike which crashed against the woodwork. Hodgson’s side responded almost immediately, with Manchester duo James Milner and Young combining before the ball fell to Glen Johnson. But the Liverpool defender struggled to make proper contact and Buffon collected. The game then briefly settled, but burst backing into life in the 14th minute as England manufactured another chance, with Johnson’s delicious cross met by Wayne Rooney, but the Manchester United striker misdirected his attempt over the crossbar. After the open spell, both sides reverted to their default setting, dropping deep, particularly England, and it eventually lived up to its billing as a cagey, tactical stalemate. Prandelli’s side were the more adventurous, conjuring 36 shots on Hart’s goal in comparison to England’s paltry effort of nine.
Manchester City team-mates battle it out in Kiev
One of the most intriguing battles of the quarter-final was between Balotelli and his two Manchester City team-mates Hart and Joleon Lescott. The element of familiarity could have worked as both a positive and a negative: while the England duo were aware of Balotelli’s trends, to second guess the unpredictable Italian striker’s next move would undoubtedly be a risk. The 21-year-old wasted two glorious chances in the first half, foiled by desperate defending. Balotelli raced onto a through-ball as England’s defence failed to execute the offside trap – Hart raced off his line but looked distinctly awkward caught out-of-position, and was saved by a desperate John Terry block as the striker’s shot headed goalwards. In the 32nd minute, Balotelli broke through again, but on this occasion the former Internazionale star attempted an acrobatic finish which Hart saved. He was getting closer, and four minutes before half-time, a delightful diagonal pass by Andrea Pirlo was nodded across Hart’s six-yard area by Antonio Cassano, and it took a lunging Lescott clearance to take the ball off Balotelli’s toe with England’s goal exposed. After the interval, Claudio Marchisio’s rasping effort was parried by Hart into Balotelli’s path – the striker managed to create sufficient space to turn and shoot but the England goalkeeper managed to desperately block the attempt. City’s Italy international was impressive, and of the trio, he was the stand-out player, proving he has the discipline and mentality to perform on Europe’s biggest stage. For all his flaws, Balotelli’s big-game temperament cannot be questioned. He loves to shine in the spotlight and dispatched his penalty in emphatic fashion.
A case for Carroll?
England made a bright start and settled early, creating a number of chances but failing to really test Buffon. Hodgson decided to stick with Danny Welbeck who has been relatively impressive of late, capped by his innovative finish in the 3-2 victory over Sweden. Apart from the obvious perks of Rooney’s return, Welbeck seemed certain to thrive with his United strike partner back to share the burden of producing England’s goals. But despite winning a number of aerial duals on Sunday, the 21-year-old was harnessed by a menacing Italian defence, and perhaps Andy Carroll would have been a more suitable option to really test what looked a susceptible opposition defence. Steven Gerrard, Milner and Young all possess the ability to deliver the type of whipped cross the Liverpool striker thrives on. In addition, his physical presence at set-pieces and dominance in the air could have caused Italy more problems. Hodgson’s decision to include Welbeck will be based on his better goal record at club level and interplay with Rooney. The selection almost paid dividends mid-way through the first half when Rooney’s back heel found his team-mate, but Welbeck, leaning back slightly, saw his effort glide over Buffon’s crossbar. When Carroll finally arrived as substitute in the 60th minute, he was dominant in the air and showed exemplary control – perhaps starting the former Newcastle forward alongside Rooney could have prompted an alternative result.
Hodgson pays the price for persevering with Young
If there were any question marks over Welbeck’s place in the first-team, then the decision to start Young was disastrous – even before his penalty miss. He was underwhelming for the fourth successive game but was still given 120 minutes. Theo Walcott merited a place in the side, facing an Italian defence which lacks pace and especially after his heroic cameo against Sweden. The Arsenal forward had earned his chance. Even Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain had a case to be given the nod ahead of Young, with his youthful exuberance and raw ability a threat to any opposition. Heading into the European championship, Young was the Three Lions’ form player, but a string of disappointing displays has resulted in him quite rightly becoming the scapegoat of this England team. Even Milner’s inclusion was questionable, and while starting Oxlade-Chamberlain and Walcott would have been a daring move by Hodgson, persisting with Young has been the only blotch on the England boss’ tactical record this month.
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