It was songwriter Billy Bragg who opined, “This isn’t a court of justice, son, this is a court of law.” And so it goes that in penalty-kick shootouts, justice doesn’t always prevail with the better team on the day winning. But in the aftermath of Italy’s 4-2 shootout victory over England after extra time finished scoreless, there can be no disputing the fact the better footballing side emerged triumphant.
The more adaptive team won, as well. After a frenetic opening 15 minutes during which both sides created good chances, the defensive responsibilities in the center of Italy’s midfield looked to be a bit too much for creative hub Andrea Pirlo. So Italy manager Cesare Prandelli made the simplest of adjustments, sliding Daniele De Rossi more alongside Pirlo, and allowing Claudio Marchisio and Riccardo Montolivo to take on more advanced roles. This had the effect of providing another outlet to link defense to attack and rendered useless the efforts of England forward Danny Welbeck to shadow Pirlo.
The result was almost complete and utter domination thereafter. Sure, England threatened occasionally on set pieces, and looked a bit livelier after the second-half introduction of forward Andy Carroll, but it was Italy that owned the ball and created the better scoring opportunities. In fact, once the Azzurri began setting up shop in England’s half, De Rossi even found some opportunities to get forward and had a glorious chance to put Italy on top in the 48th minute, somehow contriving to shoot wide from all of six yards out. Earlier De Rossi had come agonizingly close to scoring as well, but his audacious effort in the third minute from 30 yards hit the post.
“We did a good job of not letting these guys get away from us,” said Prandelli afterward. “They started hitting long balls, trying to get the knockdowns, but we kept the ball on the ground and I think we deserved to win this game.”
And in the middle of it all was the irrepressible Pirlo who, after being freed up by Prandelli’s tweak, kept the Italian attack ticking over with metronome-like consistency. And it was the Juventus man who gave Italy a bit of momentum in the shootout while trailing, if such a thing is possible. After Montolivo had fired wide on Italy’s second attempt, and Wayne Rooney had put England ahead 2-1, Pirlo casually chipped in his penalty straight down the middle, Antonin Panenka-style. At this point the vibe of the shootout changed, even though England just needed to hold serve in order to win. And sure enough, Ashley Young smashed his attempt off the crossbar and Italy was soon running downhill again, with Alessandro Diamanti converting the Azzurri’s final attempt after Ashley Cole had seen his shot smothered by Italian keeper Gianluigi Buffon.
And for neutrals, the ability to watch Pirlo weave his magic once again is the best part of Italy’s triumph, although doing so against Germany with two fewer days' rest – thanks to a ridiculous bit of scheduling on UEFA’s part – will amount to his toughest test yet at this tournament. The chance to watch Prandelli match tactical wits with German manager Joachim Low should also make for an enthralling encounter.
That will be no comfort at all to England, which, it must be said, put in a brave performance. Manager Roy Hodgson deserves immense credit for building a tight-knit side after just barely a month in charge following the resignation of Fabio Capello. But England just didn’t have enough creativity to get past the Azzurri, with Steven Gerrard becoming an increasingly peripheral figure in this match. Ashley Young had a game – and tournament – to forget, as well.
But in the end, the soccer gods smiled on Italy in a way that was commensurate with its performance. The better side won on the day, and now the Azzurri will get a chance to test their combination of luck and skill against Germany. No doubt, it will be fascinating to see if Italy’s own brand of soccer justice once again prevails.