KIEV -- On a night featuring two of the world's best goalkeepers, two renowned yet challenged defenses and a pair of maverick, wild-card strikers, the highly anticipated quarterfinal clash between England and Italy did not disappoint. In a hugely entertaining and surprisingly open game that was, at times, a showcase for uncalibrated shooting, Italy won on penalty kicks (4-2), England’s traditional poisoned chalice.
The Three Lions will have no complaints. The longer the night went on, the more it seemed they were battling the weight of history as well as their opponents. They had never won a Euro elimination game without penalty kicks. Battered and bruised as they were, they refused to go down.
England, as expected, fielded an unchanged lineup. The only difference being the sense of confidence that was beginning to ooze out of the camp. Before the game, captain Steven Gerrard announced he had “dared to dream” of Euro victory. Regrettably for him and his teammates, that dream is all he will have to cling to.
Italy’s manager, Cesare Prandelli, opted to proceed with a 4-4-2 instead of a back three, stretching his midfield wide to set the early pace as the Italians comfortably swung the ball from one side of the field to the other. It forced England’s valiant two banks of four to adjust and readjust. Yet it took the Azzurri took two and a half minutes to strike. Daniele De Rossi unleashed a vicious, sliced drive from his left foot. A well-beaten Joe Hart was relieved to see the ball strike the left post. England hadn’t touched the ball at that point. It had been warned.
If England was nervy, it did not need long to settle, working the ball up the right, and when the much-maligned James Milner conspired to fire in a cross, Glen Johnson was so surprised he took an extra beat to dig the ball out from under his feet. Keeper Gigi Buffon burnished his reputation as one of the world’s most instinctual shot-stoppers by plucking the ball out of the air, a stunning save even by his high standards and worthy of the roar he capped it with.
Confounding all those who predicted a cagey, negative game, both teams proceeded forward. England’s ambition was audacious at times, but by leaving Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck in advanced positions, and leaving its defensive line deep, it invited Italy to push the ball in the space through the middle. The imbalance of Italy’s midfield allowed England to swashbuckle at will down the right, with Johnson instrumental. Both teams used the opening exchanges to produce their most optimistic football of the tournament.
The game settled into a giddy end-to-end pattern, a stark contrast to the library-hush nature of the Spain-France match which preceded it. Italy and England openly traded scoring opportunities in high-octane fashion, with Welbeck firing over the crossbar when in space for England and Antonio Cassano (who had appeared off the pace) forcing Hart into a smart save.
Mario Balotelli was focused and loaded with intent, blocking out the constant goading of the English fans and using his speed to exploit the space behind England’s cumbersome back line. First he was gifted a pass by Andrea Pirlo, who scooped the ball through to him in space behind the English line. Balotelli pulled back his foot to shoot only for John Terry to smother the shot with a trademark covering block. Claudio Marchisio was the next to play Balotelli in, but the ball hopped up, causing the striker to athletically snap it toward Hart, who made the stop. Then, after Terry used his physicality to deny Balotelli on the line, the Italian striker vented his frustration by kicking the post. He knew that on another day, he would have had a first-half hat trick.
Try as he might, England’s maverick striker Wayne Rooney could not influence the game in the same way. The striker appeared a yard behind the pace physically and mentally in a performance so sluggish, a harsher manager than Hodgson might have replaced him at halftime.
It was an intoxicating first half in which Italy had the brains and England the guts, goalless though with sufficient evidence that, with some clinical finishing, there could be a glut of goals.
Italy opened the second half with a string of chances. The English defense lost its concentration on a corner. De Rossi found himself unmarked within five yards of goal, but bobbled his shot. Balotelli then spun in space but hit the ball right at Hart. The ball rebounded to Riccardo Montolivo, but with the goal at his mercy, he blasted over.
The more the Italians angled balls for Cassano and Balotelli to get behind their opponent’s defense, the deeper England sat. Parker and Gerrard began to be sucked backward, turning the ball over as if their game plan was to tee the Italians up for shots they could body block. Pirlo – arguably the man of the match -- was at the center of everything, sliding passes to his willing runners to mine the space between England’s stretched lines. As the lustrously maned Italian exerted his influence with a tricky calm that made it seem like he was playing a game in the street, England’s midfield looked evermore devoid of creativity.
Hodgson knew his team had to weather the storm and he bravely made an early double substitution in the 61st minute, pulling off the largely ineffective Welbeck for the lolloping Andy Carroll and bringing in Theo Walcott for Milner.
Their effect was negligible. England played like a team that had run out of energy and ideas, and it struggled to string more than three passes together before giving up the ball. Yet Italy showed why it had only scored from set pieces at Euro 2012.
England’s best chance came in the 90th minute. Johnson floated the ball toward the back post for Carroll to head toward Rooney, who could not prevent his overhead kick from going over the bar. Had he scored, it would have felt like the End of History for the Three Lions.
On to extra time for more of the same. Alessandro Diamanti, a second-half sub, hit a cross that smacked the post. On the sideline, Hodgson looked like a man with his head in a vise. He knew holding on for penalty kicks – long a national disaster for England – was his best hope.
As battered and bruised as Terry & Co. were, they would not go down and the game went to the Russian roulette of penalties, possibly the most masochistic penalty shootout of all time. England had famously won just once in five attempts. Italy had not been much better at 2-5. Two of the best goalkeepers in the world matched up. Hart consulted an iPad in the break as Buffon headed to the locker room.
Balotelli limbered up to the spot. Hart grinned at his City teammate but could not prevent Balotelli from slapping the ball into the right-hand corner. Gerrard followed him and put the ball in the same corner.
To England’s delight, a visibly nervous Riccardo Montolivo rapped the ball against the hoardings. Rooney’s delivery was machine-like. Pirlo trumped that by calmly chipping a Panenka. Then Ashley Young went for power rather than precision, and his shot was drilled with such pace that it rebounded off the woodwork to almost the halfway line. Antonio Nocerino converted. Ashley Cole dwelled on the spot, and when he finally took the run-up you could be forgiven for thinking that Buffon read Cole’s mind. The Italian keeper then smothered the ball. It was left to Diamanti, a man who had made a delightful cameo at West Ham, to execute the English with a sweetly struck left-foot shot.
England exits Euro 2012 with its head held high. Hodgson has not won, but he has taught his team to lose without crisis and put the English tabloids back in their box – and that has got to count for something. Italy proceeds to match up with the Germans, who will fear little after the Azzurri’s impotence in front of goal.
Watching the game from their base, the Germans would not have laughed more if Roberto Benigni had boxed Benny Hill.