Euro 2012: Italy V. England Quarterfinal Preview
Despite the conspiracy theories swarming Italian media in the days before the Group C finale on Monday, the worst did not happen, Croatia and Spain did not play to a prearranged 2-2 draw, and Italy did indeed go through to the quarterfinals. It was unlucky that the Azzurri weren't group winners after Croatia's defense finally cracked after 88 minutes, allowing Spain to claim the top spot with a 1-0 victory.
It was a stroke of good luck for England that they come into this game as Group D winners after France laid an egg in the group stage finale against Sweden. Their 2-0 loss, coupled with the Three Lions' 1-0 victory against Ukraine gave them the top spot and set up a tantalizing match-up between traditional powers of the game that have not played each other in 10 years.
Neither team has advanced past the quarterfinals of this tournament since 2000, so one or the other will be in rarefied air with a victory.
Who will get that victory? Let's take a closer look at these teams to find out.
Tale of the Tape
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|12||FIFA World Ranking||6|
4 (1934, 1938,
|World Championships||1 (1966)|
0 (Best result: 3rd place
|Head-to-head wins (6 draws)||
|Last World Cup||
Round of 16
|Last European Championship||
|Last 5 Matches||
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Italy started Euro 2012 off with the most anticipated match-up of the group stage: a date with defending champions Spain.
Both teams started with interesting tactical moves—Spain did not employ a striker, opting for six midfield players in a "faux-9" formation, while Italy ditched their usual diamond 4-4-2, instead employing a 3-5-2 formation with midfielder Daniele De Rossi moving back to play in the middle of the three-man defense.
The tactical changes very much favored the Italians. While the Spaniards enjoyed 60% of possession—which was far less than their norm—they were frustrated by the Italian defense and didn't mount much real early pressure on Gianluigi Buffon. The Italians, led by Andrea Pirlo and Antonio Cassano, saw some serious chances to score go to waste before a beautiful through ball from Pirlo found substitute Antonio Di Natale, who slotted the ball past Iker Casillas for a breakthrough on the hour.
The Spaniards responded immediately, after dual mistakes from Giorgio Chiellini and Emanuele Giaccherini allowed Cesc Fabregas to find space in the center of the Italian box and slam home an equalizer three minutes later. Both teams had golden opportunities to take the lead as the game drew to a close, but neither were able to convert on their the chances. Italy arguably had the better of the game, and probably could have come out with all three points.
1-1 was the result in Italy's second match, a game that truly should have been won. Italy dominated the first half and spurned several excellent chances before Andrea Pirlo's exquisite free kick late in the first half gave them a lead they deserved.
Croatia made an adjustment at halftime and began to take the game to the Italians, who had trouble adjusting and were on their back foot for most of the half. Still, victory should have been the result—an unacceptable mistake from Giorgio Chiellini allowed Mario Mandzukic to gather a cross and power in the equalizer.
Needing a victory against an already-eliminated Ireland to have a chance to advance, Italy started tight, and Ireland was able to put them under pressure for the first quarter of an hour. Then, the Italians were able to settle in and began to heap pressure on Shay Given's goal, finally breaking through with Cassano's header off a Pirlo corner.
Ireland was able to again put the Italians under significant pressure in the second half, leaving Italian fans with their hearts in their mouths until a 90th minute corner by Alessandro Diamanti was put into the net by Mario Balotelli, quieting the hearts of the Italian faithful and moving them on to the quarterfinals.
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England began the tournament with another anticipated match-up, with France. The English opened the scoring halfway through the first half off a header from Joleon Lescott off a Steven Gerrard free kick. The French fought back and equalized before the half on a goal from Samir Nasri. The French dominated possession for the remainder of the game, but the English defense held firm despite several close calls, resulting in a deserved point for the Three Lions.
The English again opened the scoring in their second game against Sweden on a header from Andy Carroll. An own goal by Glen Johnson (originally credited to Olaf Mellburg) evened the scoring in the 49th minute, followed by another strike from Mellburg on a set piece ten minutes later. Theo Walcott was brought on in response, and five minutes later he scored the equalizer on a speculative shot that likely would have been saved had Swedish keeper Andreas Isaksson not been screened by a scrum of players in the box.
Walcott then turned provider, hitting a cross into the box that was back-heeled into the goal by Danny Welbeck, giving the English a sloppy victory.
It was even sloppier in the finale against Ukraine. The co-hosts attacked early and often, dominating possession in the early going. Wayne Rooney, returning from a suspension, missed a golden opportunity on a header at the end of the first half, only to pop up on the back end of a ball through the Ukrainian box three minutes into the second half to head the ball into an empty net.
The Ukrainians needed to win to advance, and they pressed hard, having the better of the attacking game and should have had an equalizer when Marko Devic's shot was hacked away from the line by John Terry—after it had already gone over. Somehow, with an official standing right next to the goal, the signal was not given and play went on. England held on in the end, going unbeaten through the group, and, thanks to a Sweden side playing for pride, finishing in the top spot.
Key Players: Italy
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Leonardo Bonucci: After starting the first two games of the tournament and playing well, Bonucci was the logical odd man out of the Italian central defense with the return to the 4-4-2, as well as the return of Andrea Barzagli from a pre-tournament calf injury. But when Giorgio Chiellini went down with a recurrence of the thigh injury he suffered at the end of the Serie A season, Bonucci was pressed into action and performed admirably as the Italians held their slender lead against Ireland. His chemistry with Juventus teammates Barzagli and Buffon was critical, and will be again as Chiellini has been ruled out for the quarterfinal and is likely out the rest of the tournament, should Italy advance. He will have to be stout to contend with the English strike combination of Rooney and Welbeck in the three-time Serie A Defender of the Year's absence.
Andrea Pirlo: Unable to exert his normal influence against Ireland, he still made an impact on set pieces—his first half corner led to Cassano's goal. The English have had problems defending against set pieces, particularly against Sweden, so Pirlo's pinpoint delivery will be vital. He is also likely to have more of an impact on open play than he had against the Irish. England manager Roy Hodgson has shown so far that his preferred plan of attack is to cede possession to his opponents and put up a stout defense. If the Italians are allowed the kind of possession France and Ukraine got, Pirlo could carve up the English defense.
Antonio Cassano: Cassano continues to play excellently at the top of the Italian formation. He is given the freedom to roam around the field in the attacking third and create as well as finish, and has initiated several dangerous movements over the course of the tournament. He was probably brought off too quickly against Ireland, and for the wrong person. Midfielder Alessandro Diamanti did not play badly, but his introduction took away from Italy's attack and ceded more possession to the Irish.
Key Players: England
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Wayne Rooney: The importance of Rooney to the English cannot be overstated. He looked slightly rusty on Monday against Ukraine—the English Premier League ends before the rest of the 20-team leagues do in Europe and he sat out England's friendlies in order to allow Hodgson to prepare for his absence—but still managed to sneak through the Ukrainian lines to poach a goal in the group stage finale. He'll have to shake off that rust against a much better defense—the spine of which were the bulwarks of the best defense in Europe this season at Juventus. Italy must neutralize him and force his talented but inexperienced supporting cast—including Danny Welbeck, Theo Walcott, and Alex Oxlaide-Chamberlain—to beat them.
John Terry: The Chelsea captain has been in the news a lot since the turn of the calendar. He was met with criminal charges after allegedly making racist comments toward QPR defender Anton Ferdinand, causing him to be stripped of the England captaincy (for the second time) by the FA against the wishes of manager Fabio Capello, who subsequently resigned. Then, in the second leg of the UEFA Champions League semifinal against Barcelona, he kneed Alexis Sanchez in the back, and subsequently got sent off and suspended for the final. He then turned in an ugly display of attention grabbing post-game antics in Munich, changing into full Chelsea strip and lifting the trophy on the stage along with on-field captain Frank Lampard.
The icing on the cake was his selection over Rio Ferdinand—Anton's brother—in England's squad for this tournament. Hodgson initially claimed that the selection had everything to do with soccer and nothing to do with a supposed inability for the two to coexist in the wake of the racism allegations, but those claims looked less credible when the Manchester United man was again passed over after Gary Cahill had to be left home due to an injury. The English media has been all over the situation.
To his credit, Terry has played well in this tournament despite all the white noise. There have been no major mistakes on his part, and the dirty side of his game has yet to rear it's ugly head. He will have to keep his eye on Cassano and whoever his strike partner is.
Joe Hart: The first truly exceptional goalkeeper England has had in decades, the Manchester City man has saved his team's bacon on more than one occasion in this tournament. The English defense has proven to be somewhat leaky in front of him, and the Italians have the talent to pounce on those defensive mistakes and make the Three Lions pay. Hart will be the last line of defense should one of Pirlo's passes cut through his teammates.
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Prandelli's decision to shift from the 3-5-2 he used for the first two games of the group stage to his preferred diamond 4-4-2 was a choice that he probably should have made a game earlier. Both Ireland and Croatia play much wider than Spain does, and a four-man defense gives the Azzurri more height in the box and more ability to get out wide to challenge potential crossers.
The replacement of wing defenders Christian Maggio and Emanuele Giaccherini with Ignazio Abate and Federico Balzaretti, respectively, also gave a new dimension to the team. Giaccherini is primarily an offensive player—at the club level he has only ever been deployed as a winger or mezz'ala (an attacking midfielder)—so having Balzaretti, who in the wake of Domenico Criscito's exclusion from the team is the only natural left-back on the roster, on the left solidified the defense and, interestingly, provided more of an attacking threat on the wing. The replacement of Maggio was academic—he's much more effective as a wing-back than a traditional right-back, the role that Abate plays with AC Milan.
Prandelli should absolutely stay with the 4-4-2 in this quarterfinal. Rooney is a threat as a dribbler as well as in the air, but the rest of England's strikers—Welbeck and Carroll—rely primarily on headers as their means for scoring goals.
The other big decision Prandelli must make is who to start up top with Antonio Cassano. Balotelli's goal against Ireland makes him the favorite in the clubhouse, but Di Natale has played well in this tournament and England's defenders will be very familiar with Balotelli from his time with Manchester City. Either way, he'll have a heck of a supersub to use towards the middle of the game.
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Hodgson was belittled in parts of the English media after he was unexpectedly named England manager after months operating on the assumption it would be then-Tottenham Hotspur manager Harry Redknapp. He created a bit of a stir by passing over England veteran Ferdinand for Terry after the latter had garnered nothing but negative headlines, and, of course, he had to start his tenure without his top striker for the majority of the group stage. Then two of his best players, Frank Lampard and Gary Cahill, had to withdraw in England's pre-tournament training camp with injuries.
Talk about a rocky start.
He's done well so far, particularly in the Sweden game, in which his introduction of Theo Walcott immediately after his team fell behind 2-1 changed the attitude of the team and led to England's impressive comeback.
His problem may lie in his tactics. He is far too eager to cede possession to his opponents, and against Prandelli's new-look squad—which likes to take control of possession and funnel it through Pirlo to open up opponents—that might be cause for concern. France and Ukraine both looked the better side against the English, and the Three Lions have showed a concerning weakness in defending set pieces—something that Pirlo excels at. I doubt his lineup will be much different, but the question will be whether it's enough against the Azzurri.
It's been a very, very long time since these two teams have met up—long enough that there aren't many reliable accounts of recent match-ups.
The last time the Italians and the English played each other was a friendly match in 2002 at Elland Road in Leeds that ended in a 2-1 Italian victory. A 63rd minute goal by Robbie Fowler opened the scoring for the Three Lions, but Vincenzo Montella's fantastic strike from distance four minutes later evened the game out. In stoppage time, goalkeeper David James conceded a penalty kick that was converted by Montella to give the Azzurri the win.
Historically, the Italians have had the slight edge in the series, winning nine times and drawing six against seven defeats. It's been fifteen years since England has been able to defeat the Italians—a 2-0 win in 1997 in the Tournoi de France.
The only other time the teams have met in the European Championships, in the group stage in 1980, ended in a 1-0 Italian win.
Key Matchup 1
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Andrea Barzagli v. Wayne Rooney
With the injury to Chiellini, Barzagli is now the best defender Italy can throw out. A pillar in the defense of Serie A champions Juventus as well as for the 08-09 Wolfsburg squad that won the Bundesliga title in Germany, he will be the man expected to face down Wayne Rooney, arguably the third best forward in the game after Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Rooney is unique amongst the forwards Roy Hodgson in that he can create for himself off the dribble rather than rely on the service of his teammates to score goals. Barzagli must be his equal both in the air—where Rooney is lethal—and on the ground.
Considering the fact that Bonucci is carrying a card into this match, Barzagli should be the one who spots up on Rooney whenever possible, using his prowess in the air and in the tackle to try and silence him, thus forcing the rest of England's strike force to beat the Italian defense.
Key Matchup 2
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Joe Hart v. Gianluigi Buffon
Joe Hart is the first truly exceptional goalkeeper England has had in what seems like a generation. He is on the cusp of being counted with the truly elite in the game, and there is no better opportunity to gain such recognition than the chance to try and outplay Gianluigi Buffon, the best goalkeeper in the world.
Buffon has continued the exceptional form he displayed in the club season with Juventus after an injury-plagued year in 2010-11 caused many to say that his best days were behind him. The two goals he has allowed both came after his defense left him out to dry—both would have required superhuman saves to keep out.
Hart has made some fantastic stops to bail the English out of defensive mistakes. He is likely to be forced into action a few times on Sunday. In what promises to be an exciting contest, the team with the better keeper will likely be the winner.
Key Matchup 3
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Antonio Cassano v. John Terry
The Chelsea captain will be counted upon to keep Antonio Cassano bottled up in Italy's attacking third. Cassano has had an absolutely fantastic tournament so far, and his level of play is showing that the AC Milan man likely has more goals in him.
Terry will be charged with keeping him from doing so. He's played well this tournament, holding Karim Benzema goalless in the Group D opener against France. However, England has shown an alarming tendency to let a few balls slip through the cracks, which could be fatal against a team like the Italians. Terry must anchor the English back line and keep it firm.
The match-up is interesting in another way. Cassano has a reputation for being a pest, both on and off the field, and Terry is also quite the antagonist, as shown by his knee to the back of Alexis Sanchez in the second leg of the semifinal of the UEFA Champions League. If one of them can get into the other's head to the point that they provoke a reaction, one of these teams could end up playing with ten men on the field.
Predicting the Starting XI's
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Players on both sides have been sniping a bit since this match-up was confirmed. Theo Walcott has said that "we believe we could beat anyone the way we are playing." On the other side, Alessandro Diamanti praised English soccer as light-years ahead in terms of the business side of things like stadiums and fan behavior, but when it came to on-field performance made it clear that he feels that "on the pitch, Italy are stronger than England and our football is of a higher quality. We respect England, but we don't fear them."
I'm more inclined to take Diamanti seriously than I am Walcott. England's two wins and one draw belie some real problems for the team. Their defense has fractured at times, they've had problems covering set pieces, and they have shown that they are content to cede the lion's share of possession to their opponents. This is a sound strategy against a team like France, but they did the same for long stretches against Sweden and Ukraine and were lucky not to pay the price for it.
Part of England's lack of ball control may have been an adjustment to not having Wayne Rooney in the lineup, but for them to have the same possession statistics when he is on the field is troubling. Rooney has a tendency to drop deeper and deeper into his own half if his team loses possession and is forced to defend for long periods, removing him as a threat at the front.
On the other hand, Italy has been much more consistent and played better quality soccer. Once can argue that were it not for two mistakes in the defense they could have won all three games in Group C. They had some problems adjusting when Croatia took the initiative and took control of possession in the second half, although they held firm with the exception of Chiellini's unforgivable defensive error. Italy under Prandelli has seen a renewed focus to keeping possession and attacking rather than the old-time defensive catenaccio, and for a team like England that could be a problem.
I think the Italians have better players and are playing better soccer than the Englishmen. England might be able to pick up a goal on a counterattack, but if they allow Italy to control possession, the Italians will take off and run with it, funneling it through Andrea Pirlo and slicing through the English defense. I think that England will have to wait a few more weeks until the August friendly between these two teams in Bern to end their 15-year winless drought against the Azzurri. My final prediction: Italy 3, England 1.