England falter as Young and Cole join the ever growing penalty miss list
We’re now officially at the business end of the tournament; that is, only the teams who truly meant it when they said they were visiting Ukraine and Poland on business rather than pleasure when quizzed at the airport now remain. The three games still to be played will showcase many of the finest footballers on the planet, promising to enthral and entertain in equal measure. With Ronaldo Rovers beating the Danes, Germany causing a Greek footballing Euro bailout and Spain crushing the perpetually squabbling French, only one semi-final spot remained, to be filled by either Italy or England. All the pre-game talk held it as the closest matchup of the quarter-finals and people were finally getting carried away with England’s chances. My favourite optimistic clutching-at-straws angle taken was ‘when Roy Hodgson nearly won the Europa Cup with Fulham they beat a Ukranian team, followed by an Italian, then German team before meeting a Spanish team in the final. With this mirroring the path we would take to the final, it must be fate!’ Tellingly, the bookies had Italy as slight favourites.
English Infantry take on Italian Cavalry: England vs Italy match analysis
England named an unchanged side while Italy made two enforced changes, Bonnuci and Monolivo replacing Cheillini (suspended) and Motta (semi-injured). The 6,000 England fans at the Kiev stadium stoked up the atmosphere and were full of hope, daring to dream the rainbow could indeed be chased… and caught… and placed in the trophy cabinet at FA Headqaurters.
The game started off with 5 minutes of Italian possession, the Azzurri getting a feel for the ball and the Three Lions getting a feel for the grass. After only 3 minutes Italy came dangerously close, De Rossi swerving a half volley which hit the post with Hart well beaten. Gulp. In actual fact, England responded with their best period of attacking football of the tournament, displaying greater incision and tempo to their interplay than in any of the group games. One player to suddenly come to life in the tournament as an attacking threat was Johnson, who nearly scored after 5 minutes. After cutting inside to the box, the Liverpool man managed to scoop the ball towards goal from close range but Buffon reacted well to palm the shot away. Although Italy were gaining marginally more possession, England looked dangerous going forward and created another good chance from a Johnson cross that Rooney couldn’t quite divert in with his head from 6 yards.
The self-titled Super Mario Balotelli had been identified as a major threat before the game, and this was proving accurate. His skill, pace and strength were already creating problems for Terry and Lescott and after half an hour he latched on to a clipped pass from Montolivo only 12 yards out. Fortunately for England he was in mini Mario mode at the time so fired straight at Joe Hart. The warning was plain to see though: all he needed was to collect one of those mushrooms and his finishing powers would be unstoppable.
Shortly afterwards a clever exchange of passes from Welbeck and Rooney created a chance for Welbeck at the edge of the box, which he attempted to side-foot neatly into the top corner but skewed high and wide. Unfortunately for England, this signalled the end of the game as a closely matched encounter. Italy now began to take full control of possession, with chief puppeteer Pirlo pulling the strings, casually evading all challenges, as if trotting around English foot soldiers on horseback. Conversely, England’s strings started to get entwined, and the more they tried to pull them apart, the more they got twisted. Half time came at the right time for Hodgson’s men: after 45 minutes, which is also the right time for half time to come more generally.
At the interval Linekar and co talked of the need to take encouragement from the ‘ageing Italian’s’ tendency to tire in the second half. No-one seemed to notice that Pirlo was the only outfield player over 30, while England fielded four including both central midfielders. Also, the Italians were making the ball do the work while the English were letting the ball leave work early at every opportunity, creating an unsustainable workload over 90 minutes.
Immediately after half time the Italians came out all guns blazing and other military metaphors. De Rossi somehow missed a volley from 6 yards out, although as he took the shot on the turn he may have lost his bearings. The pressure was ratcheted up, England doing very well to remain level. Hart parried another De Rossi shot, which Balotelli collected with great touch and balance. He shot at Hart who saved with his foot and Montolivo fired the rebound over the bar. This was getting a bit painful! Wave after wave of attacks followed basically for the entire half, but England’s defence held out with remarkable resolve which at least partly counteracted the embarrassingly poor ball retention. Terry, Lescott, Johnson and Cole all contributed to the back-against-the-wall defensive effort, a lot of which involved last ditches tackles and interceptions.
As an attacking force England provided very little, and this was not helped by the double substitution of Walcott and Carroll for Milner and Welbeck. Neither seemed a great option for the purposes of keeping the ball, although to his credit Carroll did manage to hold the ball up quite well as England resorted to rugby kicking tactics. With extra time looming, the nation’s collective pint was nearly spilled all over the pub floor as Rooney attempted a scissor kick from short range. Unfortunately he misfired and instead a collective groan ensued, followed by the pre-extra-time nervous trudge to the toilet.
Extra time continued in the same vein. A very clear pattern emerged: conducted by Pirlo, Italy would pass and probe, creating a promising opening which England would just manage to scrape away. The ball would then be hoofed downfield, which Carroll would sometimes manage to collect and retain briefly before being tackled by five Italians, when it didn’t directly land at the feet of an Italian centre-back. The ball would then be returned to its owner, Pirlo, who would start the whole thing over again. Italy shaved the post twice in extra-time, and right at the death Hart was finally beaten, only for Nocerino’s close range header to be (correctly) ruled offside.
And so to penalties… Hart studied iPad clips of Italy’s penalty takers, compiled by the guy on goalkeeping work experience, Jack Butland. Balotelli received a massage from the team physios in tandem (which incidentally didn’t really give an indication as to whether he was due to take a penalty or not). The tension grew to a level only recognisable during England penalty kicks. This would be their seventh in major tournaments, having only managed to win one of the previous six. The uniquely English misinterpretation of penalties as a ‘lottery’ has only served to exacerbate failure over the course of the last two decades; if something is purely based on chance, why bother thoroughly preparing for it? This has resulted in England failing to prepare with the same rigour as other teams. If penalties really are a lottery, you might expect roughly a 50-50 success rate, and England’s record of one out of six hardly supports this notion.
Balotelli took the first, which he converted easily and Gerrard levelled with a precise effort. England then gained the advantage as Montolivo fired wide, but two misses by Ashley Young and Ashley Cole gave Diamanti the chance to send Italy into the semis, which he took without fuss.
Once again England have departed a major tournament on penalties, although this time round it felt like a slow death over two hours due to Italy’s total dominance. In fact, as unpatriotic as it sounds, from a purely footballing perspective it would have been something of an injustice were England to progress. Overall though, England’s togetherness and commitment to the cause has rekindled my faith in the national football team that so wholeheartedly disappointed the entire nation two years ago in South Africa. Going forward, I do hope the next generation of potential stars are given an opportunity to form the nucleus of the World Cup team in Brasil. Players like Wilshere, Cleverley, Oxlaide-Chamberlain, Rodwell, Cahill, Walker, Welbeck and Adam Johnson actually possess greater raw ability than many of the ‘golden generation’ and, importantly, are all more comfortable in possession which is the key to succeeding in international football. The golden generation have had so many opportunities now; it’s time for the next generation to have a crack.
Joe Hart- 7: Did very little wrong in the game, just as in the whole tournament. His commanding presence and world class shot-stopping ability make his a very strong case for England captaincy post-Gerrard.
Glen Johnson- 7: Left his best defensive performance for the quarter-final, and enjoyed 15 minutes of strong attacking play as well.
John Terry- 7: Man of the Match: His tireless last ditch defending was excellent, and no-one could question his pride in playing for his country. Before the tournament I didn’t think he was up to the challenge, but- barring a few dodgy decisions exposing his lack of pace- his performances have proved me totally wrong.
Joleon Lescott- 7: Gave another solid performance, making some amazing interceptions and dominated aerially once more. Has presented a strong case for becoming the senior central defender for the World Cup campaign.
Ashley Cole- 6: Strong defensively once again but ineffective in partnership with Young going forward. Made some key interceptions and is likely to gain at least another dozen caps. For some reason his ‘faux-hawk’ haircut continues to irritate me.
James Milner- 5: The workhorse of the team did everything he could, playing to the peak of his ability which unfortunately is simply not good enough at this level.
Steven Gerrard- 6: Clearly England’s outfield player of the tournament. Was barely able to contribute in a creative way against Italy and looked completely out on his feet for the majority of the game, but his contribution to the team effort could not be faulted.
Scott Parker- 5: Playing four games in thirteen days clearly took its toll on Parker who, like most of the squad, cannot be accused of lacking effort. In the second half and beyond, he rarely got within diving-at-his-feet-headfirst range of Pirlo.
Ashley Young- 4: Most disappointing player of the tournament. I’m a United fan (something I hope I have concealed pretty well!) and so am fully aware of his world-class potential, which made his performances- particularly against Italy- all the more frustrating. He exuded mind-scrambling anxiety as he stepped up for his penalty, and I wouldn’t be surprised if replays show him closing his eyes as he smashed the ball against the bar.
Wayne Rooney- 4: England only really ever stood a chance if he performed at the top of his game. He did not. To be fair to him, his performance was made to look even worse by the fact he was often isolated when receiving the ball and was hounded immediately by Italy players. Looked ready to collapse in extra time.
Danny Welbeck- 5: Never really managed to break from the shackles of the Italian defence. Like Rooney, he was hounded by the opposition but was also careless in possession.
Andy Carroll (Substitute)- 6: Held the ball up quite well, but his cumbersome nature meant he was never likely to evade the defence.
Theo Walcott (Substitute)-5: When England’s primary problem is ball retention, Walcott is not your man. Ran beyond the defence on a few occasions, but this time round he did forget to take the ball with him each time.
Jordan Henderson (Substitute)- Apparently he came on during extra time. That’s nice for him.