Italy march on, while it’s Ashes to Ashes for homebound England

Penalties were, once again, England’s undoing in a major championship. Italy prevailed from this European Championship quarter-final via a shootout after a tense, scoreless game in Kiev’s Olympic Stadium.

Pirlo’s fantastic chipped penalty sets Italy on course for victory

England started the game brightly – they used Italy’s inherent narrowness to their advantage. Gli Azzurri started with a diamond 4-4-2, just as they did against Ireland in their final group game. Glen Johnson and Ashley Cole got forward from their full-back positions, to exploit Italy’s lack of wide midfielders. Johnson, especially, got a lot of space in the opposition half, as Daniele De Rossi neglected his defensive assignment.

This paid dividend within five minutes, as Johnson drifted inside, with the ball, from the edge of the Italian box – De Rossi didn’t challenge him. He laid it off, and some nice interplay created a chance for the Liverpool man, forcing a superb reaction from Gianluigi Buffon in the Italian goal.

Defensively, it was clear how Roy Hodgson planned to neutralise Italy’s compact midfield. The England manager recognised that Andrea Pirlo is the fulcrum of all Italy’s work, so he had both strikers, Rooney and Welbeck, bracket him as Italy tried to build from the back. This initially worked well, as Italy had no real plan of action, with their playmaker being so intently smothered. Their back four had all the time and space they needed on the ball, as a result of England’s strikers concentrating on Pirlo, but had no obvious direction in which to go.

De Rossi began to notice Italy’s problems, and started coming inside, and deeper, to where his marker – England’s right-midfielder, James Milner – couldn’t follow. He got the space Pirlo craved and started distributing in a similar manner to the Juventus player. This unsettled Welbeck and Rooney, and stretched them, as they also chased De Rossi. England’s problems stemmed from here, as Pirlo began to get more space, and England’s front-men got increasingly lost at sea when Italy had possession. England’s central midfielders also had issues with the movement of their assignments – right-point of the diamond, Marchisio, and trequarista, Riccardo Montolivo.

As the first half wore on, Italy really started to control the tempo of the game. Antonio Cassano was drifting all over England’s half, sideline-to-sideline, while Balotelli mostly stayed central and hassled England’s centre backs. Cassano’s use of the ball wasn’t efficient, but his movement caused problems.

Occasionally Italy tried to find Balotelli with dinks over England’s defence. This had some success, as England’s back four were not cohesive in their attempts to spring an offside trap, but one feels Antonio Di Natale would have suited this role better. Balotelli lacked the direction of his more experienced squadmate, and was not clinical with the chances presented to him. Di Natale must have been frustrated, as he spent the entire 120 minutes on the bench.

In the second half, England were a lot less positive with the ball, and started to sit deeper. Gerrard and Parker, in the middle of their midfield, got forward less, and Pirlo started to really dominate proceedings. As the game clock ticked on, his position inched forward and he was spreading the ball from further up the pitch.

After 60 minutes, Roy Hodgson brought on Theo Walcott and Andy Carroll for James Milner and Danny Welbeck. Walcott played little part in the game, other than one winding run, and subsequent cross, which created a chance. But Carroll’s introduction changed the flow of the game. England badly missed Welbeck’s harrying of Italy’s midfielders, a dimension lacking in Carroll’s game, and England found it much more difficult henceforth to stop Italy from passing it from deep.

In England’s attacking phases, they started playing more direct passes, now with Carroll as a target. However, most of his aerial challenges were far too deep to trouble Italy, so England began to find it harder and harder to retain possession. Rooney’s participation in the game at whole was particularly disappointing. England’s star man was incredibly off the pace and his influence only dimmed as time went on. In the final 20 minutes of normal time, the game petered out slightly, as Italy lacked urgency, and England lacked any real offensive threat.

Extra-time was merely a procession. Italy had a couple of chances, and a goal by substitute Nocerino disallowed for offside, but England hung on. They began to sit even deeper, and rode their luck at times, but they survived 120 minutes and now had a chance to steal a victory in the penalty shootout.

Italy went first and the shootout started well for England, with Montolivo missing Italy’s second penalty. At 1-2, and needing to score, Andrea Pirlo, the game’s most influential player, conjured up the spirit of Antonín Panenka and dinked his penalty down the middle, past the helpless Joe Hart. This was the turning point of the shootout. Ashleys Cole and Young missed England’s next two penalties to send them crashing home with a 4-2 defeat in the shootout.

The Italians celebrate earning a semifinal place

Italy will play a mouth-watering tie with Germany in the semi-finals.

Written by Nev – @emptylakes.


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