Penalty defeat spares further England blushes
In the end, it was merciful for once. A tiebreaker loss for England, masked the huge disparity in class and temperament that existed between the two teams. Not since Argentina of 1990, has a top team played so blatantly for the tiebreaker and so much within their defensive third in the quarter final of a major championship. For all the negativity, of Greece, 2004, they actually won their matches in regulation time. In one word, England were woeful in possession and attack. What they can claim to was their defensive organization. It was a back to the wall performance. But when 9 players are down or around the box, it is not just the bus but the whole bus station in front of your goal. Italy created chances. They didn’t take their chances. So as much as the English can claim to “heroic defending” (as manager Roy Hodgson claimed after the match), it was inept finishing from the Italian frontmen which pulled the match beyond the 90 minutes.
Italy 0(4) England 0 (2)
M Balotelli (1-0); S Gerard (1-1); W Rooney (1-2); A Pirlo (2-2); A Nocerino (3-2); A Diamanti (4-2)
But England did start well. Italy had started with a bang. Daniele de Rossi had let loose a corker from outside the box and it beat Joe Hart all ends up, slamming into the left post. Three minutes later, England came roaring up and Glen Johnson, found himself free with the ball in the Italian penalty box with a clear shot at the goal. Only he couldn’t connect well, and Buffon got his arms out to stop, in what is bound to be one of the saves of the tournament.
England fought on for the next 10 minutes and Rooney had a flying header that went over the bar. And then that was it. Suddenly England barely moved out of their half. And when they did, they barely did it with more than 3 men.
Andrea Pirlo (who the English commentators believe that the Italians have mispronounced all his life as “Peerlo” when in effect he is Pearl-O”!!!) was supposedly the danger man for Italy and all the pre-match strategy was that he would be hassled off the ball by Rooney, who would play as a deep-lying forward. Rooney failed in that job as Pirlo completed 114 of his 131 attempted passes. Time and again, England were caught out by long balls from Pirlo for the strikers. Desperate defending from Terry and Lescott and inept finishing from Balotelli, Montolivo and Cassano would keep the score goalless. Italy enjoyed 65% possession statistics and one other factor that played a major role for them was the fullbacks. Both Ignazio Abate, who had a stellar match, and Federico Balzaretti ran the wings. So much so, that it was the English wide men – Young and Milner, who were left to mark the Italian sidebacks, from a fullback position. Abate would start from beyond the half line and regularly ghost in beyond the English line – stretching the defense and creating opportunities. The delivery though wasn’t as expected and most of the time, it meant an angular ball to an onrushing midfielder.
This meant Italy were playing a very high line and England could have utilised a fast break or a move down the wing to catch the Italians on the scurry. But there was hardly any such initiative and when it did happen, there would be the odd misspass to hand the initiative back to the Italians. Roy Hodgson’s strategy of putting Theo Walcott and use his pace against the tiring Italians (remember Italy had bottled all their group matches after the 60th minute) didn’t function. Prandelli kept Balzaretti back to track any Walcott run and de Rossi doubled up on him. Walcott did get a couple of runs but poor delivery marred them. England’s best chance of creating any danger always seemed from a setpiece and the introduction of Andy Carroll should have helped that. Two setpieces from Steven Gerrard caused some panic but Buffon was alert to them.
Italy though created at least 5 clear cut chances in the second half. First de Rossi snatched at a shot, while being under no pressure from the English defence and Hart at his mercy. Then there was a triple effort from de Rossi, Balotelli and Montolivo, and each time it hit the goalkeeper and finally went out. SuperMario then tried an overhead kick, and that narrowly missed the bar.Alessandro Diamanti, who had come in for Cassano, then had a fierce left footer that Hart did well to dive and save. In the final minutes of regulation time, Antonio Nocerino, another substitute, showed great control on a Montolivo through ball but his shot was deflected out. The last effort of the match fell to Rooney, but his overhead shot was off the target.
The extra time followed the same script. Italy had the ball and came up with Pirlo spraying the passes all over the field. England defending – at times with 10 men, and inside their box, did well to thwart the attack. Nocerino, finally did put the ball in, but was ruled marginally offside. Diamanti hit the post and finally when it went to tiebreak, one could almost see, that the English fancied themselves, with Joe Hart in goal.
Mario Balotelli, who has famously, never missed a penalty kick in his career, went first and scored, despite Hart guessing correctly. Gerrard returned the favor with an exactly similar penalty. Montolivo then shot wide, giving England the advantage. Rooney managed to stay calm and gave England a lead. At this point, up stepped Pirlo, the undisputed man of the match for the 120 minutes. With his team down a goal, and a shot, he showed incredible calm, to hit a Panenka (chipping the ball calmly over a prone Hart). That shot seemed to unravel English confidence and probably made Pirlo the man of the penalty shoot out too. Ashley Young hit a fierce, but central shot against the bar. Ashley Cole hit a weak shot that was saved easily by Buffon. In between, Nocerino had scored to give Italy the lead. Diamanti then stepped up to bury a left footer home and send Italy to the semi finals of the European championship after 12 long years.
Italy should have won this match easily in the regulation time. But then to win, you need to score. Even with a 68% possession and 34 shots on target, the profligacy in front of goal, would cost them dear in the semifinals. Cassano is only a 60-70 minute player now. Di Natale is of similar fitness. Giovinco or Borini are not #9. That leaves the temperamental Balotelli as the lone goal threat. While he did yeoman job today, he couldn’t finish a move. A Pippo Inzaghi, starting today would have had a hattrick. Prandelli needs to get his attacking options sorted.
England go home on penalties and it might be said that they overachieved, given the manager situation and injuries prior to starting the tournament. But when you come to a tournament with the only intention of packing your penalty area, and without any outlet, you do risk an early departure. With the so called Golden Generation (Gerrard, Terry, Lampard, Cole etc) on its last legs, it would be very interesting to see how Roy plans his rebuilding effort.
“At the moment I saw the goalkeeper making strange movements, so I waited for him to move and hit it like that. It was easier for me to chip it at that stage. Maybe my effort put some pressure on England and in fact Ashley Young missed the next one after me”
“This time in the penalty shoot-out we thought we might have the bit of luck we needed but it wasn’t to be..”