Italy vs. England: 6 Bold Predictions for Euro 2012 Quarterfinal
Italy had one of the most embarrassing, shambolic performances in South Africa two years ago.
England wasn't far behind them.
Fortunately, both sides have bounced back nicely at Euro 2012 so far.
Italy finished second to Spain in Group C with five points after draws with Croatia and Spain and a win over Ireland in the final group match.
No one has had very high hopes for England in years, and expectations were particularly low heading into Euro 2012 with an injury-ravaged side and a brand new manager in Roy Hodgson.
The Three Lions have shocked everyone the last couple weeks, and they did themselves a world of good by avoiding defending champions Spain in the quarterfinals.
Italy and England will face off in the last quarterfinal match of Euro 2012 on Sunday, June 24, and two of football's biggest nations are sure to excite in one way or another.
Scoring First Won't Matter
Both Italy and England played with fire a bit too much in the group stages.
England were lucky to open the scoring against France, but they immediately sat back and allowed France to grab the equalizer. Italy's 1-1 draw with Spain had almost the exact same storyline.
Italy were pegged back again against Croatia, while England gave up leads of 1-0 and 2-1 against Sweden before fighting back to earn a 3-2 victory.
Italy were in complete control against Ireland in their final game, but they were facing an eliminated side with little to play for. England rarely dominated Ukraine in their final match, and they once again retreated into a defensive shell after scoring, just begging Ukraine to level the score (which they very nearly did).
Italy are built on their defense, but they are definitely suspect on the counter attack. England's defense is always suspect, but it can be stellar when you least expect it.
Expect both teams to grab the lead at some point, but they won't hold it for long.
Theo Walcott Will Start for England...and Disappoint
Though England's results under Roy Hodgson have been surprising, their style of play has been utterly predictable.
Hodgson loves the 4-4-2 formation, and even the ineffective play of James Milner will not deter him from it.
Theo Walcott was the super-sub who saved England's blushes in their 3-2 win over Sweden, and he needs to start against a tough, creative side like Italy.
Walcott has great pace, vision and, as we've seen, can let it rip from outside the box. Milner doesn't add to England's attack, and they can't hope to just sit back and defend against Italy.
Of course, Walcott has struggled in the big moments of his career, so starting him is no guarantee of good things for England. But he gives them a better chance than Milner.
The First Half Will Be Very Physical
Italy and England are both very defensive-minded teams. Both sides will likely be feeling each other out in the first half, so expect plenty of crunching tackles.
Expect a very physical, defensive game in the early goings, and hopefully the ref will see the difference between a foul and a dive and won't pull out the cards too often or too early.
Strikers Wayne Rooney and Mario Balotelli will have to come back into the midfield if they want to see the ball in first half, as it will be a battle to see which world-class midfielders can impose their dominance on the game.
Mario Balotelli Will Stay out of Trouble
This will be a fun match for Mario Balotelli. He'll be going against several of his club teammates and plenty of players he's seen all season long, and they'll be eager to see him, too.
We all know Balotelli has quite the temper, and he can do very stupid things when he gets frustrated. He can also do spectacular things when given an inch of space.
Expect to see both of those things against England on Sunday, but this time, he'll stop just short of being outrageously stupid.
Since his suspension toward the end of the Premier League season, Balotelli has looked like a different player on the pitch (verbal spat with Joey Barton on the final day of the season notwithstanding). He looks like he's learned to keep his cool better, and he now keeps his frustrations in check.
Most importantly, Cesare Prandelli is smart enough to take his troubled striker off the pitch before he goes too far.
Balotelli always has an impact when he plays, but this time it will be mostly a positive one.
England Will Play for Penalties
England is not good at penalties, so why would they play for them here? Because this year they've got Joe Hart in goal.
Despite not having much experience, Hart is one of the top keepers in the Premier League and, therefore, one of the best in the game these days.
England's best chances to score will be on the counter attack or on set pieces, and besides that they will cling to whatever they have in the match. Italy could have a similar game plan, though with slightly more attacking, meaning this game has "scoring draw" written all over it.
Come extra time, all players will likely be holding on for dear life and praying for penalties.
England may not be able to score their penalties, but they can be very confident in their keeper stopping Italy's.
Italy Will Win in Sudden Death Penalties
Italy vs. England is the most evenly-matched quarterfinal in Euro 2012. Portgual-Czech Republic and Germany-Greece almost aren't fair (though that doesn't mean they'll be easy), and Spain has some pretty big advantages over France.
Italy and England are very similar teams at the moment. They're both dealing with injuries and depending on a combination of aging veterans and fresh, young superstars to get them through. They can play splendid attacking football and completely fall apart seconds later.
All this sets up for a fantastic match that is sure to go the full distance.
Joe Hart may be enough to get England through the first five penalties, but the Azzuri (goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon in particular) have been here before, and they'll finish the Three Lions off eventually.
Don't miss a minute of what is sure to be a fiercely-fought, enthralling contest.